This weekend I read an article that confirmed what I've always suspected: the best intercultural communication takes place amongst friends over drinks.
International education researchers Kati Tonkin and Chantal Bourgault du Coudray from the University of Western Australia observed a group of Australian study abroad students and their use of a blog that was designed to get them to engage in intercultural learning & peer-learning. There have been a lot of studies looking at study abroad 'best practice'--how we can get students to master foreign languages, to engage in culture learning, to not just treat it as a vacation, etc. This one tested the idea that online interaction could improve students' intercultural learning outcomes. By exposing them to theories of culture-learning in the pre-departure stage and supporting their experience with a guided reflection exercise (including a peer-learning element to the blog), it was thought that students would report better culture learning experiences.
They found that students didn't really critically engage with the blogs or comment on their peers' blog posts. The much more important factor in terms of culture learning, they found in re-entry interviews with the students, was face-to-face socialisation--namely, social drinking. The Australian students found their German counterparts to have more mature, moderate attitudes towards alcohol consumption--they commented on the lack of drunken violence in Stuttgart, the "mature" attitude of young people towards alcohol (i.e. having a beer while socialising, not just binging on spirits). The authors concluded that "peer learning occurred not online but through embodied interactions in the shared social context of the study abroad experience." (p. 115)
I loved this article because it's what my friends and I experienced and what I've observed amongst my international students. You can't force students to engage in culture learning--it just happens naturally as a result of these 'embodied social interactions'. It's supported by friendship research on international students, as well (Ward, Bochner and Furnham, 2001). If they don't interact, if they are insular and spend all of their time with compatriots, or alone in the library, they're missing out on culture learning experiences.
It also confirms what I've seen when I've looked at study abroad blogs. Many years ago, I thought I might analyse study abroad blogs, because I had a colleague who researched blogs in a different subject and it seemed interesting. An initial search and browse around the internet quickly showed me that it would never work as a research project. They are the most neglected blogs--started with good intentions in the pre-departure stage, with enthusiastic on-arrival posts, and then they're seldom (if ever) updated during the rest of the stay. Students are too busy engaging with the host culture to post about it--and that's a good thing, in terms of the culture learning we're trying to analyse.
Tonkin, K. and Bourgault du Coudray, C. 2016. Not blogging, drinking: Peer learning, sociality and intercultural learning in study abroad. Journal of Research in International Education. 15(2), pp. 106-119.
Ward, C., Bochner, S., and Furnham, A. 2001. The Psychology of Culture Shock. London: Routledge.