Can the Internet aid intercultural understanding?
We live in an era where cultures are closer than ever before. Even though we are still territorially separated, now we have a common ground – the Internet, and a common language (a modern lingua franca) – English. So, can the Internet help us understand other cultures better?
First, the Internet is a treasure chest of books that give us advice on intercultural communication. However, this genre has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As Ingrid Piller puts it: “it portrays a national world where people interact only as representatives of their nations and their identities are conditioned by nothing but their nationality.” This means that, although we should not deny group characteristics, this genre is fraught with stereotypes – and therefore does not give us the real picture we are looking for.
Next, much like Adamic, we can turn to a dynamic, more up-to-date, “living and breathing“ source – the press. The Internet is swarming with pages and pages of articles, reporting on different happenings in different cultures. However, here we need to be wary as well and listen to Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on the matter, as explained by Arthur Milikh: “The press acts on its own initiative […]. It can pick and choose its own cases — selectively closing its eyes to some, while opening them to others — not with a view to satisfying justice or the law, but in accordance with its own prejudices or interests.“ Therefore, we need to be aware of the partiality of the press and not take everything we read in the newspapers for granted.
Lastly, we should not merely consume; we should contribute! The best way to truly understand a certain culture is to engage with it. People tend to fear the unknown and different, and with cultures this may be manifested as prejudice. We ought not to be like the old Arab guide from the Acres of Diamonds story and reserve a certain narrative for everyone that differs from us; we should see them as tabula rasa and try to understand their personal epistemology before forming any opinions. And what’s a better place to interact with different cultures than the Internet and its social media? A good example for this would be the TAPP Jitsi chat. Since the culture of digital media is the American culture, which is no wonder since the U.S. has been at the forefront of technological development ever since the Industrial Revolution, it was only natural that the conversation was kicked off by a common interest, that was a part of American culture (therefore, we used what we had consumed to establish a relationship!) and that had been accessible to us via digital media. Since many of our American peers had previously been worried about our level of English, at this moment I felt just as Pupin describes: “I noticed that [the farmhands] were impressed by my trick and did not address me by the name of greenhorn quite so often.” However it may be, kick-starting the conversation with small talk can pave the way for greater things to happen.
To conclude, I believe the Internet is the greatest tool for ushering intercultural understanding there is, but only if we know how to use it. And it’s the 21st century – it’s high time we learnt.
Adamic, L. (1932). Excerpt from ’The jungle’, Laughing in the jungle. New York, London: Harper & Brothers. Retrieved from: http://interculturalextraneity.com/.
Conwell, Russell H. Acres of Diamonds. Retrieved from: http://interculturalextraneity.com/.
Franklin and the free press, Heritage Foundation. Online article. Retrieved from: http://interculturalextraneity.com/.
Piller, I. (2017). The banal nationalism of intercultural communication advice. Online article. Retrieved from: http://interculturalextraneity.com/.
Pupin, M. (1949 ). “From immigrant to inventor. New York, London: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Online book. Retrieved from: http://interculturalextraneity.com/.
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