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Q. Why don’t the Japanese look the other person in the eye when speaking?

Answer:

Etiquette prescribes that fixing one’s eyes on the chest of the other when speaking leads to a better impression and instills in the other a desire to hear what one has to say.

An expression referring to a person who is older or of a higher rank than oneself is, meue no hito meaning a person who is above one’s eyes. For this reason, the Japanese considered it rude to meet the gaze of the other on equal terms.

For Westerners, establishing eye contact when speaking is looked upon as positive, meaning “I trust you” and it is also an appeal to the other meaning, “I’m speaking from the bottom of my heart. Please trust me.” Westerners may find the Japanese avoidance of eye contact to be baffling.

Parents and schools nowadays teach children the importance of establishing eye contact when speaking to convey intent. Many Japanese now, including those who are active in establishing themselves abroad, are able to speak confidently with Westerners and with other Japanese with eye contact.

Generally speaking, the expression, osoreirimasu ga––meaning “I am very sorry to––“ symbolizes the psychology of the Japanese in placing the other in a superior position to maintain a harmonious relationship. Although eye contact is established, the Japanese still tend to put the other person on a higher footing than themselves.

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