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Look at me when I’m talking to you! – Cultural difference in hierarchy

Saskia Maarse | September 15, 2021

Recently, someone told me a story about a Chinese man who was invited for a job-interview at a Dutch company. He had the diplomas, the competences, and the experience – a strong case for the prime candidate. Surprisingly, he didn’t get the job. The reasons given was he seemed too hesitant and shy since he made little eye-contact.

Whether people look each other in the eye or not, is partially determined by culture and the hierarchical systems they have. The Netherlands is a country known for its low power-distance (a dimension of Hofstede), in other words, we see each other as equals. Dutch children are taught by their parents and teachers to look them in the eye when the topic of conversation is serious. “Look at me when I’m talking to you” is a common phrase, which tries to enforce the idea that to have an honest conversation you must look in each other’s eyes.

A sign of respect
The applicant from China comes from a country where there is high power distance, where its normal that there is a large imbalance of power. People see it as a sign of respect when you avert your eye-contact from the figure of authority. Looking your boss, teacher, or parents in the eye is seen as arrogant and or disrespectful (especially if they’re angry).

People learn in their youth when they can and shouldn’t make eye-contact, when to shake hands, and when to say your please and thank you’s.

From around our seventh year, we think of everything we’ve learnt as normal, which is a large reason why we hold onto our cultural norms and values. They feel safe and familiar. At the same time, we easily judge things that are different to us. When someone in the Netherlands refuses to look us in the eye, we impose our own meaning and truth on it. This fosters a misunderstanding and distance, like the example of the Chinese applicant.

All cultural standpoints have their own respective flipsides. By asking questions, being open, and curious, you can delay your judgement by getting to know the other culture. This can give you the time necessary to make a better judgement, perhaps whether or not a candidate is the right fit.

About Saskia

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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