In certain parts of the world, especially in East Asia, direct eye contact can cause major misunderstandings between locals and foreigners. In Korea, if you look someone directly in the eye, you are effectively saying that you consider yourself of equal status to them. Maintaining direct eye contact with elderly people, for example, can come across as aggressive and rude – whereas in the West it is often considered polite and means you are paying proper attention to what they are saying.
Whereas in many cultures it is more modest and respectful not to look a superior in the eye, in the West this is often interpreted as a sign of ‘shifty-ness’ and the person can be suspected of dishonesty because ‘he would not look me in the eye’.
A possible reason for this discomfort in keeping eye contact could lie in the Confucian tradition, which is still very much alive in Korean culture and in which respect for one’s elders plays an important part. Elders are always superior and hierarchies are strictly observed. This is also true in Japan. Koreans and Japanese also use different sentence structures depending on who they are speaking to, and inferiors must always obey superiors.