The Kinder Gap: Culture Shock

  1. Natural Law
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

“For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection.” (?)

All cultures are continuously changing, and today these changes are both rapid and deep. What effects will an international individual-oriented communications network have on cultural change within cultural entities?

Forces of Acculturation

“Culture” is a set of values held by individuals who believe themselves and each other to be of the culture. There are three forces that impact on an individual’s sense of culture. (?)

  • Education by cultural standard-bearers who wish to mold the individual into a proper member of society.
  • Environmental forces, such as climate, economic opportunity, and population density.
  • Exposure to external models of behavior.

The Internet promises to modify all three of these forces in two ways: the Internet provides a culture of its own, and it provides a pathway to other cultures. Thus, individuals on a computer network have access to cultural standard-bearers who view themselves as part of the Internet, or part of other cultures. The Internet itself will modify economic and political opportunity, at the least, and other effects remain to be seen. As an exposure to external behavioral models, the Internet is paralleled only by war, tourism, and student exchanges, and will have the possibility of affecting far more individuals than the latter two.

The Internet is the Culture

Besides its obvious role as a medium of cultural exchange, or a pathway for individuals of different cultures to communicate, the Internet is itself either a new culture, or a new subculture that spans multiple cultures. The environment and interactors and means of interaction are different than the non-Internet environment, interactors, and interaction. This means that even within a culture, irregardless of the alien cultures it connects with, the Internet will be an external force on cultural change. It resembles the sailors’ and slaves’ pidgins of old. “Pidgins” are languages of convenience, not really languages at all, created when different cultures have to interact on a continuing basis. Slaves forced into foreign lands developed pidgins. But when the next generation has been brought up speaking the pidgin, it grows to a “creole”, a full-fledged language of its own. The Internet itself is reaching critical mass, and when enough children come aboard, they’ll create their own culture based on global communications.

This seems to be the way humans organize themselves. Even a superficial categorization of individuals into groups is sufficient to produce in-group/out-group identification. (?) You’re either on the bus or off it.

Subculture use of the Internet

The external forces that shape cultural change can come from within the umbrella of a ruling culture: wherever there are populations that have been excluded from effective participation in the political process, from a share in the benefits of the national economy, and from meaningful roles in the social structure. (?) This also requires that means exist to overcome this exclusion. In the past, these means have ranged from violent revolution to music and dance. Because the Internet masks individual identity, it will have its own unique role in minority populations.

In Japan, Japanese women are braving the Internet so that they can shop in male-dominated automobile show-rooms without being intimidated by the male orientation of the process of car buying. (?) They’re using the infobahn to overcome the sexism in their culture.

This is one aspect of the net: it can hide class or membership of the participants and filter out power cues.

The Internet also provides a means by which members of a subculture can communicate, where, without the net, they might not even have known that others like themselves exist. Once such individuals realize what the net can do for them, they are likely to take advantage of the net more than their culturally mainstream fellows, because they have more to gain.

Ann Landers can tell you that this happens in the States as well (?):

Detroit: My 20-year marriage is in ruins. My wife is convinced she has found her soul mate on the Internet. She is 42. We have two teen-age daughters. Her “dream man” is an Air Force specialist from New Jersey. Please let your readers know there is danger lurking in those chat rooms.”

New York: After 19 years of marriage, my wife wants a divorce. She says the computer has opened her eyes to a whole new world. The woman has spent an average of five hours a day glued to that gadget, exchanging e-mail with pilots, business executives and poets. She also has been getting letters from prison inmates

Yes, there is danger lurking in those chat rooms. The danger is that people who were once subjects are slipping out from beneath the thumb of their conquerors, leaving their conquerors confused and scared. A woman doesn’t leave her husband twenty years later because she suddenly decided she’d rather be in Jersey. She leaves because she never wanted to be married in the first place and has suddenly discovered that there is a way out.

Internal Contact

Subcultures can have a profound effect on the surrounding culture. In the United States, for example, blues music led to Jazz, Disco, and Rock and Roll.

Intergroup contact can result in either improved relations or increased tension and aggression. Which outcome occurs depends on a number of factors. (?)

Conditions that predicate a favourable outcome include:

  • Equal status between members of the various groups.
  • Contact is between members of a majority group and higher status members of a minority group.
  • Authorities and/or social climate favors and promotes the intergroup contact.
  • Contact is intimate rather than casual.
  • The ethnic intergroup contact is pleasant or rewarding.
  • Members of both groups interact in functionally important activities or develop common goals or superordinate goals that are higher ranking in importance than the individual goals of each of the groups.

Unfavourable conditions include:

  • The contact situation produces competition between the groups.
  • The contact is unpleasant, involuntary, tensionladen.
  • The prestige/status of one group is lowered as a result of the contact.
  • Members of the group(s) as a whole are in a state of frustration.
  • The groups have moral or ethnic standards which are objectionable to each other.
  • In the case of contact between a majority and a minority group, when the members of the minority group are of lower status or are lower in any relevant characteristics than the members of the majority group.

These should be kept in mind when fostering contact between subcultures on the net, especially if these subcultures inhabit the same physical locations in the real world.

Traditionalism and Modernism

Some of the terms of cultural psychology--civilization, Europeanization, Westernization--are often used in an ethnocentric manner. The changes that they embrace are industrialization, urbanization, mass communications, transportation networks, and a formal educational system. The Internet is not the first bit of western technology to be incorporated world-wide. It is, however, the first to allow general, interactive communication between indigenous and western individuals.

According to Kahl’s system of “modern values”, modernization involves a move towards occupational primacy, dependence on mass media rather than local conversations, and individualism, defined as an independence from workmates. (?) This means that the “job” is the main point of living, rather than recreation; and the mass media is the main source of news, rather than local individuals. And despite the move to the workplace, the job is a place to work and get the job done, rather than a meeting ground.

The Internet doesn’t necessarily follow this, however. The Internet is not, for example, a mass media, at least as defined as a one-way communications dump, the content of which the viewer cannot control. The Internet fosters a return to “local gossip” as a means of getting news, but “local” means the entire world that the net covers.


According to Goethe, translation between languages is impossible, essential, and important. Simple translation between languages by computer is now almost within our grasp. But cultural translation is another step entirely, and enabling cultures to understand each other is, by definition, changing at least one of those cultures.

At one extreme, how would a culture where talking about something is the same as doing it view a culture where talking about nearly anything is regarded as protected speech?

Mediating Languages

In many countries there are a number of languages, and people in one area may not speak the same language as people in another area of the country. In such places one language may become dominant, as in China; or an external language might be chosen for intranational communication, such as in Singapore, where English is used.

Language And Attitudes

There are strong indications that, among individuals who learn two languages for two purposes, the language they use can affect their attitudes towards traditional and modern beliefs. Studies of bilinguals have found that when queried in their native language, individuals score more “traditionally” than when queried in the language used for “modern” things. (?)

This might provide a means by which a culture could maintain traditional values while also taking part in the wider opportunities of the world.

If a second language is encouraged in a country for internal mediation or external commerce, students might well be encouraged to keep the use of this second language well in mind, segregating it from other uses, for which the native tongue would be more appropriate.

Where nationalistic feeling is encouraged, it might even be appropriate to have three languages: one native, one for intranational communications, and one for international communications.

Darwin’s Internet

As a medium for politics and a force for economic growth, the Internet will encourage cultural change if only because it will encourage the primacy of those whose attitudes, values, and beliefs enable them to make the best use of it. On the Internet, this could include such things as a willingness to sell to people they can’t see and cater to people without knowing their status or class.

The introduction of the Internet will necessarily mean that different skills become important, regardless of the mainstream cultural values.

Nationalism and Cultural Hegemony

In Singapore, the adoption of English as the lingua franca of the citizens may be promoting the emergence of a “Singapore identity”. (?) English itself may have played a part for two reasons: it provides a means of communicating with the outside world, and thus identifying against it; and it did not create the internal rivalry that might have occurred were a local language risen to dominance over other local languages.

It should be kept in mind, however, that in multi-cultural societies, an overriding national identity may not be desired. In order that the cultures maintain themselves, it may be necessary to promote the “overriding” identification on the local level, and maintain only a lesser identification at the national level. Once a cultural identity is replaced from local to national, what is to stop it from being replaced again?

The Internet as Mediating Media

Conversational Norms

In the United States, women are interrupted by men more than 80% of the time. Women are expected to allow themselves to be interrupted. Similar norms apply between high and low-status individuals. (?) All cultures have very specific and binding rules about communications between individuals. Computer communication bypasses those rules. It reduces the social solidarity of existing social groups and facilitates conversations among strangers.

The lack of face-to-face interaction will change the nature of the communication. The physical presence of others leads to increments in our level of motivation or arousal. (?) Computer-mediated communication does not result in physiological arousal. (?) Different rules can apply to, and different results come from, computer-mediated communication.

Group Communications

Group members participate more equally via computer than face to face. The dominance of an individual is weaker. In experiments, computer-mediated groups take longer to reach consensus and exchange fewer remarks. (?) Possibly, this places “computer mediated communication” between the spoken word and the written word.

Computer-mediated groups showed a significantly higher change from the initial group position, possibly the result of added ability of lower-status individuals to ignore social pressure towards consensus. People are also more uninhibited in the use of common language: insults, name calling, and swearing. Electronic mail-style discussion merges the language of the boardroom and the ballfield.

Face-to-face contact reduces the chances of individuals coming to terms. Even the simple act of hiding faces can increase the likelihood of compromise. (?)

Group discussion where no compromise is necessary tends to polarize the members. Members in favor of an action tend to support that action more strongly after a discussion session. Those opposed, tend to become more strongly opposed. (?) When predicting the outcome of final decisions of groups, there are at least three possible schemes: majority rule (where the group decides what the majority started in favor of), leader decision (where the group decides what the dominant member started in favor of), and truth wins (where decision that fits the facts is chosen). In computer-mediated decisions, dominance is reduced, and the other two options tend to be the most likely. The majority rule scheme generally comes to the fore in judgmental tasks, where the decision by necessity is mostly a matter of opinion. The truth wins approach is best when there actually is a correct decision available.

There is some evidence for how movement towards decisions works:

  • Majorities exert powerful effects. Members were much more likely to shift toward a majority than to defect from one after it came into existence.
  • ”Momentum” exists; once a group starts moving towards a specific decision, this movement tended to persist. Reversals of direction were quite rare in the experiments.
  • The speed to reaching a decision increased with growing experience (that is, on subsequent decisions).

Whether this is a matter of the momentum/majority affecting the decision, or the most reasonable decision affecting the momentum/majority remains debatable.

The Internet is a Road to Cultures

While little study has been performed on the Internet’s role in cultural exchange, much has been done on tourism and on student exchanges.

Dimensions of Contact

The effect of contact on individual attitudes and values depends on a number of variables. (?)

  • The time span of the interaction.
  • Its purpose.
  • The type of involvement.
  • The frequency of contact.
  • The degree of intimacy, relative status and power, numerical balance, and distinguishable characteristics of participants.

Whenever individuals who don’t know each other and don’t understand each other interact, the differences that separate them become salient. In the past, these have been skin color, religion, and language. On the Internet, things such as language, writing style, and domain name might come to the fore.

Cultural Sojourners

The study of students has produced something Alatas (1975) called, in Asia, the “captive mind” syndrome, where overseas trained students uncritically apply the solutions learned overseas to local problems, without appropriately modifying them for the local culture. (?)

From a cross-cultural standpoint, four basic types of individuals come from intercultural communication: marginals, mediators, chauvinists, and passers.

  • Passers pass, or wish to pass, as members of the new culture. This comes mostly from studies of students.
  • Chauvinists are those who uncritically proclaim the advantages of their own culture as superior to the new culture.
  • Marginals are those who accept much of the new culture and maintain the new culture, but not in a unifying manner. They have a foot in each door and cannot belong to either house.
  • Mediators are those who understand each culture and are at home in at least one of them. They can combine features of different social systems without losing their cultural cores. Such individuals have the ability to act as links between different cultures, and may translate and reconcile the cultures to each other.

Trivializing Culture

When tourists and locals of Third World communities come in contact, often it is the marginal members of the community that prosper, and can take advantage of the tourist needs. Tourist dollars often produce drunkenness and crime.

The simple act of observation can profoundly affect the local culture, as the locals begin to see themselves as a tourist attraction rather than traditionally. Traditional ceremonies lose their value, and celebrations lose their appeal. Relations between individuals change; in Tahiti, for example, the reputation of its women as beautiful has changed the relationship between the married and courting Tahitian couple. Many cultures have discovered that when their ceremonies lose their cultural value, a psychological void can springs up which cannot be filled. But there is rarely a turning back.

However, when tourists come in manageable numbers, as they do to the Mediterranean island of Gozo, this can be psychologically beneficial to the hosts, who see such contacts as a chance to broaden their horizons. However, as the number of tourists increase, rewarding tourist-host contacts diminish.

Contact Among Equals

In advanced societies, contact between visitors and hosts can more easily result in important friendships. Such contact can also affect the self-view of subcultures. In Israel, for example, friendships between Arab youths and tourist girls--who don’t share the local prejudice against Arab males--considerably enhance the Arab boys’ self-esteem.

Cultural Shame

Some political leaders desire to shield visitors from certain citizens, or desire to shield their citizens from certain visitors. In the days of the USSR, Intourist heavily controlled tourist experiences. Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, and a number of southern Arab states are not interested in non-Islamic visitors, who are viewed as agents of cultural change. (?)

Possible Solutions When Connecting to the Internet

  • Foster Internal Strength

    When wiring the country together, perhaps it would make sense to let the country talk to itself for some period and build up internal support mechanisms and discussion methods before integrating the country’s cultures into the world Internet culture.

    Encourage a sense of both national and local identity, with local identity paramount.

    Separate actions into cultural and non-cultural, with different attitudes, values, and beliefs--and possibly even language--for each.

    In Alaska, the Inuit people are attempting to use the Internet to strengthen their culture. But they’re centering their Internet access around elementary schools. This may be unavoidable; and they’re attempting to color this by saying that the Inuit culture “has always respected and valued the contribution of youth to community”, so its natural that they use the local school. But schools are a western contribution to Inuit culture to begin with, and the Internet may well strengthen the western-ness of the elementary school experience. Time will tell. (?)

  • Manage Communication

    Create a desirable cultural goal which intercultural communication via the Internet can achieve, even if it be simply the presentation of the culture as desirable to the world.

    Discourage the use of psychologically powerful cultural icons by visitors, possibly simply by explaining their meaning.

It is widely held that cultural psychology offers means by which members of different cultures may interact without prejudice. With the advent of the net, an even more important purpose may arise: allowing whole cultures to interact while retaining their cultural identity. Cultures may die with an age, and there are truths worthy of preservation in all man’s cultures.

  1. Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz .
  2. Marshall H. Segall, Cross-Cultural Psychology: Human Behavior in Global Perspective, 1979, Brooks/Cole Publishing, p. 187.
  3. Joe Jaspars and Miles Hewstone, “Cross-cultural interactions, social attribution and inter-group relations”, Cultures in Contact: Studies in Cross-Cultural Interaction, ed. Stephen Bochner, p. 129.
  4. Segall, (op. cit.) , p. 184, quoting Kelman (1968).
  5. Telecommunications Policy Review, April 9, 1995, p.11.
  6. Ann Landers, San Diego Union-Tribune, clipping from an unknown date in 1996.
  7. Jaspars and Hewstone, (op. cit) ., p. 127-128, quoting Amir (1969).
  8. Segall, (op. cit.) , p. 192.
  9. Segall, (op. cit.) , p. 209.
  10. Verner C. Bickley, “Language as the Bridge”, Cultures in Contact: Studies in Cross-Cultural Interaction, ed. Stephen Bochner, p. 103.
  11. Robert A. Baron, Donn Byrne, Social Psychology: Understanding Human Interaction, p. 387.
  12. Baron and Byrne, (op. cit.) , p. 415.
  13. Sara Kiesler, Jane Siegel, Timothy W. McGuire, “Social Psychological Aspects of Computer Mediated Communication”, Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, edited by Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling.
  14. Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, (op. cit.)
  15. Baron and Dunne, (op. cit.) , p. 387.
  16. Baron and Dunne, (op. cit.) , p. 436.
  17. Stephen Bochner, “Theory and Definition of the Field”, Cultures in Contact: Studies in Cross-Cultural Interaction, edited by Stephen Bochner, p. 8.
  18. Bochner, (op. cit.) , p. 29.
  19. Philip L. Pearce, “Tourists and their hosts: some social and psychological effects of inter-cultural contact”, Cultures in Contact: Studies in Cross-Cultural Interaction, edited by Stephen Bochner, p. 207.
  20. See any of the following web pages, if they’re still up:
  1. Natural Law
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?