January 1997

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Intercultural Computer-Mediated Communication

by Néstor G. Trillo

 'Disclosure' movieclip screenshot"Freedom from the physical body...freedom from race and gender, from nationality and personality, from place and time. Communicating by cellular phone, and hand-held computer, PDA, built-in fax modem, we can relate to each other as pure consciousness."

Scenes from the 1994 movie, Disclosure, describe a virtual reality database accessible worldwide. With the advent of Virtual Reality Markup Language, the World Wide Web is a cornerstone of such future global communications. However, before we aspire to such "freedom from the physical body" through information technology, we must better understand the intercultural challenges involved not only with the technology we create, but how we employ that technology.

Technology is not independent of --culture. Bridges, buildings, and boats are all examples of technology that vary in numerous dimensions from one culture to another. The engineering principles that govern their construction may be universal, but it is culture that guides the appropriate implementation of those principles. A rope bridge in Chile, a garden bridge in Kyoto, and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco all employ the same engineering principles and follow identical laws of physics. Nevertheless, the culture of their respective creators served as guidelines for their appropriate construction in a given ecology.

As online interactions increasingly become both intercultural and interpersonal in nature, users must become more interculturally sophisticated, rely on mediators, or both. Common ground in virtual communities, such as a classroom, or a workplace is not constrained geographically. The diversity of its members with respect to nationality and culture can create an environment with divergent ideals, values, and assumptions regarding appropriate interaction. Cultural guidelines will carry over into networked environments. The movie Disclosure described a vision of a virtual workplace that offered "freedom from race and gender." Yet, it is interesting to note that the premise of the film revolved around sexual harassment in the workplace. When we interact with one another, whether face-to-face or through mediating technology, we bring with us our unspoken guidelines for behavior... [TOC]


Néstor G. Trillo ( is finishing his M.A. in Communication at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. His thesis, an Intercultural Communication Homepage, is a prototype of a clearinghouse on Intercultural Communication Reference materials.

Copyright © 1996 by Néstor G. Trillo. All Rights Reserved.

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