Intercultural Dialogue and New Media Research: An Interview with Robert Shuter

“Interviews”I recently sat down with Robert Shuter, director of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research, to talk about possible overlaps in our areas of interest. Here’s a brief summary.

Intercultural dialogue typically assumes people from different cultural backgrounds interacting face-to-face, with the intention of coming to some understanding of their areas of similarity and especially difference. Intercultural new media research examines the relevance of culture for mediated communication, specifically when using any of the new social media.

There is an obvious need for research into the ways in which technology can be used to facilitate intercultural dialogues. A few possibilities have already been investigated. One approach examines efforts to link students(especially those studying intercultural communication or learning a language) with peers located in different countries. As yet, there is only a little published research on this topic. A very different form of virtual intercultural dialogue involved placing large electronic screens in public spaces in Australia and Korea, facilitating virtual interaction between populations not typically in dialogue, and then analyzing the results.

Other studies have examined virtual collaboration but collaboration is frequently missing requisite dialogic elements like empathy and deep understanding. At the same time, it may lead to intercultural dialogue, and perhaps is a precursor to dialogue. Hence, the question remains: Is intercultural dialogue possible in the virtual world?

One possible answer may be found by considering Fred Casmir’s concept of third culture. Casmir posited that individuals from different cultures can optimize their relationship through the development of a third culture which combines elements of each of their cultures into a new whole. Dialogue is necessary to develop a third culture, which Casmir argues cannot be achieved without empathy and deep understanding of others. Once achieved, a third culture provides an ideal climate to interact because it is mutually accepting, supportive, and cooperative.

As Shuter puts it in a recent publication (2012): “Although third cultures are difficult to create in the physical world, some research suggests that they may be more achievable in virtual communities. McEwan and Sobre-Denton (2011) argue that the ease of technological access to cultural others combined with reduced social and economic costs significantly increase the probability of developing third cultures in the virtual world. Virtual communities, unlike organic ones, do not require leaving ones domicile to be an active member nor are they plagued by face threats due to social errors, according to the authors. In fact, new media provides users with technological tools to manage social distance, which McEwan and Sobre-Denton suggest increase cultural risk taking and experimentation, leading more readily to virtual third cultures.” (p. 225)

Andreas Pöllmann adapts Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital to propose the relevance of intercultural capital. Essentially this expands beyond intercultural proficiencies (the typical list of intercultural skills, competencies, sensitivities required for intercultural competence) to include more subtle elements. A few examples to make his proposal concrete: those who are bilingual are especially useful in multilingual groups; those with international work experience can most quickly find their footing when sent to yet another country to conduct business. Such individuals should find their skills and experiences valued, and themselves much in demand, whether as employees or friends. The implications of cultural capital are enormous, as they suggest that those in the third world who are multilingual have something of great value that many in the first world lack. The question will be: how does intercultural capital play out in new media contexts?

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, Director
Center for Intercultural Dialogue

See the following articles for references to supplement these comments:

Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (2015). Intercultural dialogue. In K. Tracy, C. Ilie & T. Sandel (Eds.), International encyclopedia of language and social interaction (vol. 2, pp. 860-868). Boston: John Wiley & Sons.

McEwan, B., & Sobre-Denton, M. (2011). Virtual cosmopolitanism: Constructing third cultures and transmitting social and cultural capital through social media. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 4, 252–258.

Pöllmann, A. (2013). Intercultural capital: Toward the conceptualization, operationalization, and empirical investigation of a rising marker of sociocultural distinction. Sage Open, April-June 2013, 1-7.

Shuter, R. (2012). Intercultural new media studies: The next frontier in intercultural communication. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 41(3), 219-237.

US could learn from Scandinavia

The U.S. could learn from Scandinavia
By Robert Shuter

[Published Sept. 15, 2012 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and reprinted with permission of the author]

The United States is plagued by systemic and exploding inequalities in wealth, education, housing, employment and health care, all fueled by rampant vertical individualism. This vertical perspective of people and performance pervades American life and thought. Consider the phrase ” the best and the brightest,” the accolade du jour in America.

A recent Google search uncovered more than 44 million references to “the best and the brightest” in U.S. culture, including the best and brightest schools, movies, companies, presidents, leaders, politicians, hospitals, physicians, scientists, pharmacists, therapists, chefs, teachers – even dogs! The phrase captures the society’s vertical individualism, where performance in all sectors of U.S. culture is ranked on a hierarchy from best to worst, brightest to dimmest.

Even the discourse of Americans reveals their vertical individualism. For example, the language of praise and criticism, which plays a role in all societies, has a distinctly American twist because of the assortment of superlatives used and their vertical arrangement. Americans are inclined to use superlatives such as “awesome,” “outstanding,” “wonderful,” “tremendous,” “delightful” and “great” to describe people, behavior or objects. They are just as apt to use the opposites of these words: “terrible,” “disgusting,” “garbage,” “loser” and “junk” – to name a few. The U.S. language of praise and criticism travels vertically along an emotional register, from highs to lows.

Unlike the U.S., Sweden, Denmark and Norway are founded on horizontal individualism, which they call the Law of Jante, and it emphasizes equality, community and modesty, resulting in sky-high taxes. Their brand of individualism has made Scandinavia among the most economically successful and egalitarian societies, leaders in workforce employment, gender equality, democratic institutions, quality of life, educational achievement, environmental stewardship and digital access, as reported by 2011 World Economic Forum.

Coined by Aksel Sandemose, a Norwegian author, the Law of Jante affects all aspects of Scandinavian life, from social relationships to business communication. At work, for example, managers in Scandinavia are considered “first among equals” and communicate on an egalitarian basis with employees, who are neither reticent nor intimidated by them. Scandinavian praise and criticism – which tends to be emotionally flat, bereft of superlatives and modest – are carefully crafted so as not to inflate and diminish egos or create false expectations.

The inherent conflict between the Law of Jante and the best and the brightest – two brands of individualism – is captured in a story that was told to me by a Norwegian businessman, who had been living with his 12-year-old daughter and wife in the U.S. for several years and decided, quite suddenly, to return to Norway. What finally convinced him and his wife to depart the U.S. was their daughter’s announcement that she was an “outstanding” writer. When they asked her how she knew this, she said, “My teacher told me so.” They both instantly realized it was time to return to Norway.

Scandinavians who hear this story quickly understand the parents’ decision, while Americans are left dumbfounded by the narrative. They can’t understand why this type of praise, so common and so desirable in the U.S., would cause anyone to leave the country. From a Norwegian perspective, praise such as this violates the essence of the Law of Jante by seriously inflating their daughter’s ego, which, in the parents’ view, potentially hinders her re-entry to Norwegian society. Before she became too egocentric, too American in their eyes, the parents decided it was time to leave.

So what’s to be learned from these different and conflicting brands of individualism? In my view, what the world needs is less American vertical individualism and more equality, community and modesty at home, work, in government and international affairs – a Jante world. Scandinavia’s unique brand of horizontal individualism has the potential to solve many of the world’s most intractable vertical problems, from income and gender inequalities to disparities in education and employment. It’s time the world learned the secret of Scandinavian success.

Robert Shuter is professor of communication studies at Marquette University, Diederich College of Communication and director of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research. He is the author of “Understanding Misunderstandings” and “Communicating in Multinational Organizations.”

intercultural new media research

The Journal of International and Intercultural Communication (Taylor &
Francis) has just published a special issue/forum devoted to intercultural
new media research (Volume 4/Issue 4).  Edited by Robert Shuter, Past Chair of the International and Intercultural Communication Division of the National Communication Association, the special issue explores the intersection of new media and intercultural communication and is the academic debut of intercultural new media studies – an exciting new area of intellectual inquiry.

All articles in the special issue/forum can be read on-line and downloaded
free of charge from the Taylor & Francis website.

Intercultural new media call

Robert Shuter, Director of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research
and Professor at Marquette University, is editing a special issue of the
Journal of Intercultural Communication Research (Taylor & Francis)  on new
media and culture. The deadline for submissions is October 1, 2011.

The following link describes details of the special issue and submission

Feel free to contact Bob if you have any questions:

Robert Shuter Researcher Profile

ProfilesRobert Shuter is Director and Founder of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research.  A pioneer in intercultural communication studies, Dr. Shuter is Professor Emeritus at Marquette University (USA).

A noted researcher on communication across cultures, he has published over 60 articles and books in major scholarly journals including Journal of Social Psychology, Journal of Communication, Communication Monographs, Management Communication Quarterly as well as popular press outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. His recent article on emerging interpersonal norms of text messaging in India and the US appeared in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research.  He edited a special forum (2011) on intercultural new media research for the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication as well as a special issue (2012) of the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research on new media research across cultures.

NOTE: Robert Shuter passed away May 4, 2021. He was a long time colleague in Milwaukee. He was interviewed by CID a few years ago: Intercultural Dialogue and New Media Research: An Interview with Robert Shuter. Further information about his life and work can be found in his ASU obituary.


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