This article originally appeared in the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine’s volume 5, issue 2. You can read or download the entire issue here.
A day without access to new technologies, online tools and digital media is something many of us cannot imagine. We use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, Twitter to follow the news, Pintrest to organize our hobbies, Instagram to share our pictures, Whatsapp and many other instant messaging systems to chat with friends, family and colleagues all over the world. A recent survey commissioned by Nokia shows that on average, people check their phones at least 150 times per day. This made us wonder: How does the online interaction between people affect the development of intercultural competences and what are its implications for issues such as support for social adaptation?
Jason Lee, Ph.D. of AFS Malaysia (Yayasan Antarabudaya Malaysia) and associates conducted a study at the National Institute of Education in Singapore in 2012 aiming to find these answers as they relate to AFS exchange students. The study entitled Uncovering the Use of Facebook during the Exchange Program was conducted in order to find out whether Facebook has a role in coping with exchange-experience related stress, and in building social identity and intercultural competences.
The research methodology was based on examining status updates of Malaysian secondary school students going on an exchange in the USA, as well as interventions such as interviews and questionnaires before and after their year abroad. A total of 917 status updates and 3246 corresponding comments made between January and July 2009 were analyzed. The material was classified into categories and traced over the U curve cultural adaptation model in four critical periods: pre-departure, arrival, in-exchange and return.
Even though there is no hard evidence that the use of new media creates cultural awareness, it is possible to look at certain impacts of Facebook through the so-called “ABCs” of intercultural adjustment – its Affective, Behavioral, and Cognitive aspects.
The affective side of intercultural learning can be seen as a result of undergoing a series of stress-provoking life changes, according to Colleen Ward in The Psychology of Culture Shock. In this case, stress does not need to be only a negative event, but also a learning opportunity and a motivating factor to do better in the future.
This study showed that, in the affective, or feeling, domain, Facebook is used as a resource for coping with stress: Sojourners express emotions in status updates and in return receive support from their friends. Facebook statuses are a way to acknowledge the stressor and sometimes even add humor to the situation. This is perceived as an indirect way to seek help, while lightening the problem and minimizing vulnerability with humor.
Although friends’ comments can have a negative effect too, the positive responses from them often serve the purpose of support and can inspire further reflection about the issue. They also make the participants learn something about themselves – their own identity and culture, and this increased self-awareness is one of the Educational Goals of AFS exchange programs. Facebook status updates are also used for coping with the changed environment and keeping in touch with people from home. Such statuses may lead to “group mediated cognition”, a situation where the opinion of an individual is influenced by the thinking of peers involved in the same activity.
In exchange, social media is also a space where participants often compare their performance, or cultural adaptation process, with their peers. This comparison can affect them in two different ways: An “upward comparison” with somebody who is perceived to be coping with the challenges better than them can result in increased motivation to progress. Or, in a “downward comparison”, exchange students can look for self-validation and ways to cope with adaptation-related stress by realizing that they are not the only ones in such a situation.
The behavioral aspect of intercultural learning, on the other hand, as it is defined in this study, describes the need to acquire culture-specific knowledge and social skills in order to successfully adapt in an environment, according to this study. While the use of Facebook can be analyzed in the affective and cognitive domains, the behavioral aspect was not included in this analysis as participants did not use this social medium frequently enough in search for culture-specific information.
In this study, the cognitive aspect is based on Tajfel’s social identity theory, which describes the formation of one’s identity as a dynamic process involving intergroup relations and acculturation strategies. In the cognitive domain, Facebook status updates and interaction can play a role in acculturation (see Cultural Adaptation Models for Friends of AFS for more information). While also building their virtual identities, students gain awareness and take critical stands on their own culture while maintaining their identity.
This research shows that through their postings, sojourners were able to identify aspects of their own culture which are particularly important to them, or which may have previously been invisible to them. At the same time, Facebook status updates are also used as a means to seek or build relationships with the host community.
This research shows that social media can be used by exchange students to externalize feelings and as a resource of social support throughout the learning experience. While this kind of online communication does not replace in-person contacts and support structures that AFS has for its participants, it can be a useful supplement. And, it is important to bear in mind that excessive Internet use is one of the dysfunctional coping strategies, which was confirmed by the results of the Impact of Living Abroad study (more on this in the 2013, volume 4, issue 1, edition of the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine).
Some other reports also indicate that social media can also be useful in the post-exchange communication and dealing with the so-called reverse culture shock or re-entry problems. In the upcoming issues of this news magazine we will look at the post-exchange challenges sojourners face and how digital tools can help in overcoming them.