One of the prerequisites for effective communication is information about our conversant. The knowledge we bring to a conversation about the other person's background and identity can be valuable in avoiding misplaced assumptions and false information, leading to possible miscommunication or potential conflict. Knowledge about the other's religious beliefs or worldviews may provide practical information about aspects of everyday life, such as greeting rituals, eating habits, or clothing choice. A Muslim woman, for example, may not choose to shake hands, may be skipping lunch because of Ramadan, and may be wearing a headscarf due to social and religious customs. Knowledge about important historical events, minority groups, social hierarchies, or the geo-political situation of the other person's home culture, all may be helpful in determining appropriate and inappropriate conversation topics.
We can't be knowledgeable about all cultures, but we can inform ourselves about particular cultures or groups in which we have a special interest or are likely to encounter. That might include countries in which the language spoken is one we are learning, or it might be cultures represented in one's living community, working environment, or university. Most people today are likely to search and find information on the Internet. That holds true as well for reading the news and keeping up with world affairs. As discussed in this chapter, online searches do not provide neutral, unbiased results. It's also not the case that all search results point to sites with accurate information. With the glut of information on the Internet today, it's more important than ever to be informed consumers of technology tools and services.
Being an informed consumer of Internet services
In assessing search results, there are a few important considerations. Typically, the sites linked first in a search (using Google) are "sponsored links", sites that have paid to have their links first in line. The next hits listed are those which Google's algorithm has determined are the most popular related to the topic searched. These sites, however, may be linked higher not due to real popularity – or to the usefulness of their information – but because of the effectiveness of their search engine optimization (SEO). SEO involves modifying a site's HTML code (Hypertext Markup Language – the underlying code of web pages) in order to include terms most likely to be used in particular searches. In some cases dummy websites are set up with back links to the main page to try to enhance the indexing process used by Google and other search engines. It's important for sites to be ranked high in search results, as online advertising income is based on the number of visitors to that site. So-called "clickbait" sites are set up to generate advertising revenue by relying on sensationalist headlines to attract click-throughs. Often, the destination site will have minimal information and will require additional click-throughs to try to find the information advertised.
In such an environment, it's important to be able to evaluate search results, to ascertain the likely reliability of the information provided. One indication is the nature of the website. Institutional sites associated with a university, research institute, professional organization, or institution of some kind (such as a museum) are likely to be more objective than personal sites or blogs. Most countries have government websites providing a wealth of information; sites for government agencies can be informative as well. Of particular trustworthiness are sites with resources which are curated, peer-reviewed, or annotated. Merlot, for example, is a curated collection of free online learning and teaching materials. Crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia can be good starting points for information gathering, particularly as they point to further resources and authoritative sources. The same cautions recommended here for written resources hold as well for video sites such as YouTube.
Digital literacy also means becoming an informed user of other kinds of online tools and services. There are, for example, a great number of options available today for working in other languages. That includes a variety of dual-language dictionaries, thesauri, and spellcheckers. There are also a number of services which offer online machine translation. Most of those, such as Google Translate, rely principally on dual-language corpora – collections of translated texts. This means that they are most accurate when there is a large number of texts available, as there are between English and other major European languages. It's likely that there are far fewer texts for other language combinations, say Arabic to Estonian, forcing the translation engine to rely on built-in grammar/language models. It's always good practice to back-translate machine translations, particularly using a different translation service. Such tools are especially useful for deciphering websites or other texts but less so for writing, as they do not have the flexibility to adjust for language register (i.e., degree of formality) or tone.
In participating in online discussions, it's important to be aware of netiquette practices – that is, the social conventions attached to the use of particular forms of electronic communication. One should, for example, avoid writing in all capital letters, as that is perceived as shouting. In writing text messages and other short form electronic messaging, the convention is to ignore spelling and grammar rules, including capitalization and punctuation, while making rich use of abbreviations. The potential for miscommunication in written online communication is increased by the absence of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, constraining interpretation of communicative intent exclusively to the written language. Depending on the particular medium of communication, there may be as well a particular "culture-of-use", that is, a set of historically developed, socially accepted norms and behavior for participation. Steve Thorne discusses, as an example, French language learners participating in an Internet discussion forum for readers of the French newspaper Le Monde – see sidebar. Not being aware of localized cultures of use, such as exist in this case, can lead to miscommunication and frustration on all sides. Developing an awareness of the appropriate genres of language use and styles of communication can enable full engagement in multicultural online activities.
A practical lesson in cultures-of-use
In a recent study examining foreign language learning in open Internet environments, Hanna and de Nooy reported on the interactional and identity related activity of four students of French who participated in public Internet discussion fora associated with the Parisian newspaper Le Monde. Hanna and de Nooy’s rationale for opting to use a public discussion forum was to move students entirely outside of the relative safety of explicitly educational interactions where participants occupy the institutionally bounded subject position of student or learner. Le Monde discussion fora, by contrast, exist to support argumentation and debate about mostly contemporary political and cultural issues. Hanna and de Nooy followed four students, two of whom opened with stand-alone messages that requested help to improve their French. They received a few cordial as well as abrupt replies, each of which suggested the need to take a position in the ongoing discussion. Neither did and both disappeared from the forum. In contrast, the other two students opened with a response to an existing message, directly entering the ongoing debates. One student primarily used English in his posts but still engaged members of the forum and garnered numerous responses to his contributions. With coaching and support from other participants, he was able to fully participate in the discussions, suggesting that "neither politeness nor linguistic accuracy is the measure of intercultural competence here" (Hanna and de Nooy 2003, p. 78). Rather, in the circumstances of this Le Monde discussion forum participation in the genre of debate was the minimum threshold for continued participation.
Thorne, 2013, pp. 200-201
Such conventions as illustrated here exist for most forms of Internet-based social activities such as multiplayer gaming. Many of these activities are likely to be global, with participation from users representing a variety of cultures and languages. New modes of online communication will inevitably develop new cultures-of-use. These will be learned informally, on the fly, through participating and observing. As in most areas of culture, here too we are socialized into acceptable norms and behaviors. Given the pace of development of services and activities on the Internet, this kind of socialization is not likely to take place in institutional settings, as John Seely Brown comments: "The unrelenting velocity of change means that many of our skills have a shorter shelf life, suggesting that much of our learning will need to take place outside of traditional school and university environments." (2008, p. xi). This translates into both a need for ongoing digital literacy and, as well, a high degree of learner autonomy, to be able to gain the necessary skills and knowledge in a self-directed environment.
For Discussion and Reflection...
- Using the definition of culture presented in this unit, how would you describe your culture? Why are so many people afraid to communicate with people from cultures different from their own? Do you agree with the greater need for intercultural communication competence today? Why or why not?
- To what extent have you experienced the media echo chamber and the filter bubble? What methods can help overcome the restrictions on connecting with others? How can greater digital literacy help?
- After watching the Chimamanda Adichie TED talk (“The dangers of a single story”): What does she mean by a "single story"? What would be other ways to describe this phenomenon? Have you had personal experiences that parallel those of Adichie?
- After watching the Alisa Miller TED talk (“How the news distorts our worldview”): Imagine a map which would represent the geographical areas that you read, hear,