Eve at RN2B1Day brought up a good topic recently on one of her posts. This is a quote from her site that sums up the main idea if the post:
“we were told that we had to be careful of how much eye contact we made with other people because it could be intrusive and/or a sign of disrespect. The explanation was that some cultures do not like eye contact and that we had to be weary of this. A couple of instructors said eye contact made them nervous or that they thought it was rude.“
She was confused by this, because she had been taught her whole life that making eye contact was a sign of trust and interest in the other person. Which I completely agree with.
However, it’s important to realize that not all cultures interpret certain behaviors the same way. This is very evident for me because I live in the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, which is right next to the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in northeastern Arizona. Understandably, there are sometimes “misunderstandings” when people from the Navajo or Hopi cultures interact with “white/Western” culture, and vice-a-versa when tourists travel through the reservations.
I've had some experience with cultural differences. When I worked at a museum in Flagstaff, I often worked very closely Navajo and Hopi volunteers. When I would first meet them they would be very reluctant to shake hands and if they did they almost never made eye contact. I later learned that (traditionally) in their culture making eye contact is often perceived as an aggressive or overly personal behavior. Once I found this out, I had a better understanding of my volunteers’ behavior and didn't take it personally.
Working in medicine can be an especially slippery slope. Often medical workers need to ask patients very personal and private questions and sometimes perform very invasive procedures on the patient’s bodies. This can be traumatic and off-putting for anyone, but especially those who have never had experience with Western medicine.
In my opinion the best thing one can do is realize that these differences do exist and to be sensitive to them. It is likely that if a person is being treated in an American or Canadian hospital they are at least somewhat familiar with our basic cultural norms and will have some idea of what to expect. At the same time, you should keep in mind that most patients (from this culture or any other), are sick and scared and wanting to be anywhere else at that moment than stuck in a hospital bed in your hospital. Try not to take it personally.
PS a great book to read on this topic is one called "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman. It is the story of an immigrant Hmong family with a very sick child and their experiences with Western culture and medicine.