Sunday, 26 April 2009

Cultural differences in online behaviour

My reflections on our Asia-Europe WHAZZUP? project continue. What I have observed in my role as the Ning network creator and facilitator (controller at times, too!) are certain differences between the online behaviour of Asian and European teenagers. I hasten to add that we are only talking about a tiny community of some 250 members, and naturally I shouldn't roughly stereotype Asian and European teenagers into two groups because of their wide variety of countries and cultures, not forgetting individuals and multicultural mixes, in both. Suffice to say that the following are just my musings about interesting phenomena, the origin of which slightly puzzles me.

Back in the 90s when I attended quite a few courses on intercultural communication the talk of the day was, among others, Geert Hofstede's studies and theories on Cultural Dimensions. Although his theories have since been largely dismissed as out-dated and simplistic (eg. these examples) I can't deny there is some truth in his dimension of individualist (leaning towards western) and collectivist (leaning towards eastern) cultures. I experienced it first-hand during my ASEM-DUO teacher exchange in South Korea 3 years ago. It consisted of reciprocal 1-month sojourns in each other's countries and school by me and and a Korean English teacher. The way we carried out the exchange was to also accommodate each other in our homes. First of all, it saved us a lot of costs, but also provided a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of a family in the other culture. My Korean counterpart came to Finland with his wife and small daughter to stay with my family, whereas I travelled to Korea alone. Only my daughter joined me for a 1-week holiday at the end of my stay.

The following examples struck me as signs of a more collectivist culture (vast generalisations, I know):

1) School uniforms and more hierarchical roles and rituals at school.

2) Preference of package tour holidays (with the accompanying uniforms again!) over self-designed improvised travel.

3) Generally more closely-knit extended family units. No wonder then that I, a wife and mother, travelling on my own, became the target of a lot of pity and surprised questions: How can you possibly manage a whole month without your family - or they without you, for that matter?

4) For me, this sign of a restaurant summed up the experience I had with life in Korea. At least on the surface, since I found it extremely hard to get deeper than the permanent, rather inscrutable smile on their face.

Despite the fact that I often felt a strong longing for more personal space and suffered from culture shock quite a bit, the care, friendliness and compassion, my hosts and their relatives and friends showed to me, the poor lonely Finnish woman in a strange land, was heart-warming and something I wish we had more of here in the cold, mainly look-after-number-one Finland.

Remembering these impressions of my stay in Korea, made me pay attention to certain behaviours in our project community. One clear difference between Asian and European students seems to be in the forming of groups the Ning platform allows. So far the following groups, restricted only to the students of certain Asian schools, have been formed:

Although the whole idea of our project community was to give students a voice and allow them to 'Speak Up' and express their ideas and introduce topics, still the Philippine students wanted their own separate group with the following premise:
Welcome to this group! Well, all we have to do here is just share our daily experiences past moments of our lives including the unforgettable ones. I hope to hear a lot from you!
One discussion started there was:
what can you say about global warming? do you want to help? in what way? Speak up guyz!
This was interesting, since a European student had already started a group called Danger Global Warming. May have been a simple oversight, of course, but I wonder?

With the Korean school group there was a mix-up, and a Spanish students ended up joining by mistake, which led to the following comments:

By comparison, none of the European students have created their own school or national groups, but groups revolving around hobbies or interests instead, which allow for anyone across the two continents to join, for example this one:

Another observation stems from the (notorious) Finnish tendency of being well-organised - sometimes to the point of ridiculous rigidity. So, true to my Finnish nature, I have gone to great lengths in writing guidelines, advising the teacher colleagues involved and reminding students again and again what the different sections of our project Ning platform are meant for. But again and again, it’s Asian students who keep ‘messing’ my neat plans by writing stuff all over the place - introducing themselves in the wrong place (in my opinion ‘wrong’, that is!), for example.

It seems that people in different cultures have apparently got used to different behavioural patterns for social networks and are simply following these cultural scripts in their heads, which sometimes result in ‘collisions’ or confusion on an intercultural forum. I should learn to let go off my Finnish control and loosen up a bit, and just let the community unfold in new and unexpected ways.

Geert Hofstede has been quoted to have said:
Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.
My experiences have shown me that sometimes cultural differences may feel rather irritating, but I still wouldn't agree with Hofstede here. Cultural diversity enriches our lives making intercultural communication a fascinating lifelong learning experience, and thus should be embraced and not frowned upon.

In conclusion, I need to add that it would take more sociological and psychological expertise to know if I am even slightly on the right tracts in my speculations, but as a case study I think this does point to certain challenges concerning intercultural communication.


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