As global access to the Internet increases, so does the potential for miscommunication in international online interactions (IOIs). Unfortunately, many models for examining cross-cultural communication focus on conventional (offline) interactions or settings. As a result, researchers lack a mechanism for examining how cultural factors could affect online discourse. This article presents an approach—international digital studies—for examining how cultural factors could affect IOIs. The purpose of this approach is to identify points of contention or areas where online media can create conflicts in cultural expectations associated with credibility. Once identified, these points of contention can serve as the subject of future research related to culture and communication.
Creating credibility, or ethos, is not a random process. Rather, audiences use certain factors, or ethos conditions, to develop a checklist for determining if a presentation is credible (worthy of attention). That is, audiences come to a particular presentation situation thinking, “This individual must do x, y, and z if I am to consider him or her credible/worth listening to.” If all of these expectations are met (can be “checked off”), then the presenter and his or her ideas will be considered credible. If one or more ethos conditions are not met, then audiences will be less likely to view a presenter as credible (see St.Amant, 2002a, for a more in-depth discussion of this concept).
The ethos conditions one expects to encounter can vary from culture to culture, and such differences have been noted at a variety of levels (Campbell, 1998; Tebeaux, 1999; Lewis, 2001). Persons from different cultures, for example, often use different organizational structures (e.g., stated vs. implied conclusions) and different methods of citing sources to establish the credibility of a presentation (Woolever, 2001; Lewis, 2001; Hofstede, 1997). Cultures can also associate different credibility expectations with sentence length. Southern Europeans, for example, associate longer sentences with credible presentations, while Americans view shorter and more direct sentences as being more credible (Ulijn & Strother, 1995). Additionally, the kind of relationship associated with the use of a particular word can cause cross-cultural credibility problems (Li & Koole, 1998; Li, 1999).
Online media complicate cross-cultural interactions by creating conditions that affect credibility expectations. In many cases, online media reduce human interaction to typed words. Typed online messages, however, tend to follow patterns related to spoken discourse. This mix of written and spoken communication creates a new and interesting situation, for recipients of online text messages do not obtain nonverbal identity cues key to communicating in spoken exchanges. The sender of an online message therefore seems faceless and anonymous (Gauntlett, 2000; St.Amant, 2002b).
As a result, notions of authority, identity, and credibility take on new forms in cyberspace. As Fernback (1999) notes, in online exchanges, the markers of credibility—marks that draw others to listen to you—are not, “brawn, money, or political clout,” but are rather “wit, and tenacity, and intelligence” (p. 213). Thus, wit, tenacity, and intelligence become ethos conditions individuals can use to appear more authoritative or more credible than other participants in an online exchange. These factors therefore become digital ethos conditions, for individuals come to expect them when assessing the credibility of online presentations. These digital ethos conditions, however, can conflict with the communication expectations of different cultural groups.