Looking is socially regulated: there are social codes of looking (including taboos on certain kinds of looking). It can be instructive to reflect on what these codes are in particular cultural contexts (they tend to retreat to transparency when the cultural context is one's own). 'Children are instructed to "look at me", not to stare at strangers, and not to look at certain parts of the body... People have to look in order to be polite, but not to look at the wrong people or in the wrong place, e.g. at deformed people' (Argyle 1975, 158). In Luo in Kenya one should not look at one's mother-in-law; in Nigeria one should not look at a high-status person; amongst some South American Indians during conversation one should not look at the other person; in Japan one should look at the neck, not the face; and so on (Argyle 1983, 95).
The duration of the gaze is also culturally variable: in 'contact cultures' such as those of the Arabs, Latin Americans and southern Europeans, people look more than the British or white Americans, while black Americans look less (ibid., 158). In contact cultures too little gaze is seen as insincere, dishonest or impolite whilst in non-contact cultures too much gaze ('staring') is seen as threatening, disrespectful and insulting (Argyle 1983, 95; Argyle 1975, 165). Within the bounds of the cultural conventions, people who avoid one's gaze may be seen as nervous, tense, evasive and lacking in confidence whilst people who look a lot may tend to be seen as friendly and self-confident (Argyle 1983, 93).
Noting Pratt's (1992) exploration of 'the colonial gaze', Schroeder comments that 'explorers gaze upon newly discovered land as colonial resources', and adds that John Urry (1990) refers to 'the tourist gaze', which reflects status differences, emphasizing that it is historically variable (Schroeder 1998, 208).
Codes of looking are particularly important in relation to gender. One woman reported to a male friend: ‘One of the things I really envy about men is the right to look’. She pointed out that in public places, ‘men could look freely at women, but women could only glance back surreptitiously’ (Dyer 1992a, 265). Brain Pranger (1990) reports on his investigation of 'the gay gaze':