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Falling Through the Cultural Gaps? Intercultural communication challenges in cyberspace. Reeder, Kenneth; Macfadyen, Leah P.; Chase, Mackie; Roche, Jörg 2004-12-31

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FALLING THROUGH THE (CULTURAL) GAPS?Intercultural communication challenges in cyberspaceKENNETH REEDER1, LEAH P. MACFADYEN2, MACKIE CHASE1Department  of  Language  &  Literacy  Education  and 2Centre  forIntercultural  Communication,  The  University  of  British  Columbia,Vancouver, CanadaANDJ?RG ROCHEMultimedia Research & Development Lab, Department of Languages andCommunication, Ludwig Maximilians Universit?t, M?nchen, GermanyAbstract. In this paper we report findings of a study of online participation byculturally  diverse  participants  in  a  distance  adult  education  course  offered  inCanada, and examine two of the study?s early findings. First, we explore both thehistorical  and  cultural  origins  of  ?cyberculture  values?  as  manifested  in  ourfindings, using the notions of explicit and implicit enforcement of those values.Second,  we  examine  the  notion  of  ?cultural  gaps?  between  participants  in  thecourse and the potential consequences for online communication successes anddifficulties.  We  also  discuss  theoretical  perspectives  from  Sociolinguistics,Applied  Linguistics, Genre  and  Literacy Theory  and  Aboriginal Education thatmay shed further light on ?cultural gaps? in online communications.   Finally, weidentify  the  need  for  additional  research,  primarily  in  the  form  of  larger  scalecomparisons across cultural groups of patterns of participation and interaction, butalso in the form of case studies that can be submitted to microanalyses of the formas well as the content of communicator?s participation and interaction online.1. Introduction and BackgroundIntercultural communication is always a challenge, but even more so when it happensonline  in  the  absence  of  visual  and  oral  cues  or  well-developed  relationships.  Incomputer-mediated courses, participants are involved in building learning communities.Culturally diverse individuals may hold widely different expectations of how to establishcredibility, exchange information, motivate others, give and receive feedback, or critiqueor evaluate information.In our recent study (Chase et al., 2002), we have begun to explore the impact ofcultural differences upon  participation in  a  computer-mediated course  offered  by  the2                  K. REEDER, L. P. MACFADYEN, J. ROCHE AND M. CHASEUniversity of British Columbia to a culturally diverse group of learners across Canada.The overall goal of the study was to test critically the widely held assumption that theuse  of  standardized  communications  technology  ?off  the  shelf,?  implemented  withcompetent  professional  pedagogy,  will  constitute  sufficient  conditions  for  successfulcommunications and learning for culturally diverse cohorts participating in a distancelearning program. Ascertaining the role of preconditions for successful online learninghas potential significance for both policy and practice in distance learning for culturallydiverse  clientele  who  increasingly  comprise  the  global  educational  mainstream(Cummins and Cameron, 1998). Recent studies of second language learning have begunto delineate in some detail the critical role of intercultural variables in mediated learningexchanges.  Thorne  (2003)  for  example  develops  the  notion  of  medium  as  culturalartifact, and electronic cultures-of-use, both of which we make extensive use of in ourproblematization of ostensibly culturally neutral e-learning tools in this study.This phase of our project explores two main observations. First, we discuss boththe historical and intercultural background for the emergence of cyberculture values as asocial construct, introducing the theoretical notions of explicit and implicit enforcementof those values to describe potential mechanisms underlying patterns of communication.Second, we examine the idea of ?cultural gap? between participants in our course interms of the consequences for online communication successes and difficulties, in thelight of Gudykunst?s (1995) theory of the correlation between communication anxietyand perceived differences between communication partners.For the purposes of this study, a definition of culture was used that moves beyond?essentialist? views of culture as values and beliefs and patterns of behaviour that arelearned  through  our  experience  and  environment.  We  have  found  that  a  majority  ofresearch and theory papers published to date in this area implicitly define culture as'ethnic  or  national  culture',  and  examine  online  communication  patterns  among  andbetween members of specific ethnic or linguistic groups; only a few attempt to broadenthe concept of culture (see Macfadyen et al., 2004 and references therein). In particular,a  number  of  studies  have  relied  upon  Hofstede's  theoretical  framework  that  positsdimensions of (national) culture (1991), either to develop testable hypotheses about theimpact of culture on Internet-mediated intercultural communications, or to interpret datapost hoc (Abdat and Pervan, 2000; Gunawardena et al., 2001; Maitland, 1998; Marcusand  Gould,  2000;  Tully,  1998).   Also  referenced  frequently  is  Edward  Hall's  theory(1966) of high/low context communications (Buragga, 2002; Heaton, 1998a; Maitland,1998).  Recently, however, others have worried about the use of extant social theory inwork on online intercultural studies. Abdelnour-Nocera (2002a) discussed the risks ofusing  "ready  made  cultural  models"  such  as  Hofstede's,  arguing  that  one  may  miss"qualitative specific dimensions that don't fit certain pre-established parameters", andBenson  and  Standing  (2000)  have  proposed  a  "systems  theory"  of  culture  thatemphasizes culture as an indivisible system rather than as a set of categories. Thorne(2003)  also  offers  a  new  conceptual  framework  that  draws  together  "discursiveorientation,  communicative  modality,  communicative  activity  and  emergentinterpersonal dynamics". In line with these latter theorists, and while we acknowledgethe contribution of learning and environment to beliefs and behaviour, we also worrythat  ?essentialist?  models  of  culture  emphasize  fixity  of  identity  over  the  reality  ofidentity fluidity.   Instead, we tend toward the social constructivist view espoused byFALLING THROUGH THE CULTURAL GAPS? 3Scollon  and  Wong-Scollon  (1995)  in  which  culture  is  viewed  as  ?shared  ways  ofsymbolic meaning making among members of a social community? ? especially whenconsidering interactions between communicators who differ in many more ways thansimple ?nationality?. We treat the nexus of cultural production as discourse, ? in thepresent  case,  the  online  discussions  amongst  participants  in  an  emerging  onlinecommunity. We further argue below that in online communications, as in face-to-facecommunications, culture is negotiated, not given. On this view, culture is not learned inthe usual sense, but rather, constructed ?from the ground up? as individuals negotiatevaried and often multiple identities.It  appears  in  our  study  that  what  is  learned  culturally  can  place  learners  atconsiderable odds with the best plans and unexamined communicative assumptions ofonline  distance  course  developers.  The  cultural  assumptions  about  effectivecommunication  held  by  educators  who  develop  online  discourse  platforms,  courseassignments  and  threaded  discussions  might  match  poorly  with  those  of  the  adultlearners  that  they  target.  In  a  stunning  display  of  na?vet?  and  smugness,  Canada?sleading agency for the promotion of e-learning stated recently:? Our position as a bilingual and multicultural country, as a Pacificnation with a neighbour's view of the American experience, makes iteasier  for  our  post-secondary  institutions  to  develop  online  courseofferings with appeal to learners in the United States, Europe and Asia.Canada  also  has  an  excellent  reputation  for  high-quality,  culturallyneutral content. (Industry Canada, 2003.)Our study contests the notion that culturally neutral content is even conceivable, letalone attainable in online settings.2. Our Approach2.1. CONTEXTAn introductory course for a university certificate program in Intercultural Studies wasoffered in a mixed mode consisting of two days of face-to-face meetings followed by sixweeks of facilitated online assignments and discussion. WebCT served as the softwareplatform for the online component. The face-to-face component of the course took placein parallel meetings held in Toronto and in Vancouver. The two cohorts merged for theonline introductions, assignments, and discussions that comprised the remainder of thecourse proceedings.2.2. PARTICIPANTSThe community of 24 participants that embarked upon this course included 17 students,5  course  facilitators  and  2  moderators.  Three  learners  failed  to  complete  all  therequirements of the course.   In our descriptions below, both facilitators and moderatorswill be described for convenience as ?Facilitators? despite their somewhat differing rolesin the leadership of the course. There were 17 female and 7 male participants, ranging inage from 25 to 55 years, and participants in this course appeared to be representativesocially  of  the  population  normally  recruited  for  the  certificate  program,  including4                  K. REEDER, L. P. MACFADYEN, J. ROCHE AND M. CHASEindividuals  with  high  school,  college,  university,  or  post-graduate  education.  In  theinitial personal introductions posted online, participants used the following categories toidentify their cultural heritages: Canadian, British Columbia First Nations (aboriginal),Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, Southern European, German, African, South Asian,Italian,  Chinese,  and  UK  South  Asian.  Nine  of  the  24  participants  were  born  andeducated outside of Canada.Table  1  divides  participants  into  the  three  broad  groups  that  we  compared  forpurposes  of  descriptive  analysis  of  participation.  While  the  cultural  diversity  of  thiscohort did not allow us to categorize it into easily identifiable ethnocultural groups, webelieved that this demographic grouping, employing participants? Canadian citizenshipstatus, is relevant from the perspective of the participant?s exposure to mainstream NorthAmerican cultural values in early life and educationTable 1. Total Number of Postings by Citizenship Group, Role and GenderROLEGROUP LEARNERS FACILITATORS(Gender) M F M FTOTAL GROUPMEANAboriginalCanadians12(2) 9 (1) n/a (0) n/a (0) 21 (3) 7.0Adultimmigrants toCanada27 (2) 61 (3) 28 (2) 106 (3) 222 (10) 22.2Non-aboriginalCanadians0 (1) 153 (8) n/a (0) 57 (2) 210 (11) 19.1TOTAL 39 (5) 223 (12) 28 (2) 163 (5) 453 (24) 18.9Total number of postings is indicated; number of individuals is indicated in parentheses.2.3. DATA AND ANALYSISOur data set consisted of printed transcripts of all 423 online contributions over the sixweeks? facilitated online component. Full details of the procedure used to prepare thecorpus are provided in Chase et al. (2002). Pseudonyms were assigned to participants toprotect  confidentiality  and  to  mask  cultural  membership  prior  to  the  analysis  of  theprinted  transcripts  of  the  online  contributions  to  the  bulletin  boards.  After  readingthrough the postings individually, the four investigators came together and exchangedobservations relating to categories of postings, text, frequency, style, interactions, andpatterns,  with  the  aim  of  identifying  themes  that  emerged  in  the  data.  Preliminarydescriptions of the corpus of postings revealed the broad dimensions of the course?scommunicative component. Table 1 summarizes the distribution of postings by group,role in the course, and gender.FALLING THROUGH THE CULTURAL GAPS? 53. Findings3.1. THE INTERNET HAS A CULTUREOur  first  observation,  and  perhaps  the  observation  with  the  most  wide-reachingimplications  for  the  success  of  electronic  intercultural  communications,  is  that  thecommunicative space or platform created by the Internet is not a culturally neutral or?value-free? space in which culturally diverse individuals communicate with equal ease.Like  all  technologies,  the  Internet  was  and  is  socially  produced  ?  and  all  socialproductions are informed by the cultural values of their producers (Castells, 2001). Thecreators of the Internet were predominantly Anglo-American engineers and scientists?seeking  quick  and  open  access  to  others  like  themselves?  (Anderson,  1995.  p.  13).Their  ethnic  and  professional  cultures  value  aggressive/competitive  individualisticbehaviours.   In addition, these cultures value communications characterized by speed,reach,  openness,  quick  response,  questions/debate  and  informality.  Schein  (1992)attributes similar values to the information technology community in general.We observed that these communicative cultural values are embedded in the designof  WebCT  and  similar  Internet-based  communications  platforms.   Layered  over  thisfoundational  but  'invisible'  culture  of  the  Internet,  the  culture  of  the  online  modularcourses  under  study  here  is  similarly  the  product  of  its  creators:  predominantlyuniversity-educated Canadians, who are Western, English-speaking and female. Withinthe course environment, communicative cultural values are enforced both explicitly andimplicitly. Implicit enforcement is due to features such as the technical infrastructure ofthe course (a discussion board which requires public postings and responses), and byunspoken  assumptions  and  expectations  about  how  communications  should  proceed.Meanwhile,  the  communicative  culture  of  cyberspace  and  of  this  online  course  isexplicitly enforced through overt statements, instructions and requests made by coursefacilitators and by some of the learners (Table 2).3.2.   THE  GREATER  THE  CULTURAL  GAP  BETWEEN  ONLINEPARTICIPANTS,  THE  GREATER  THE  POSSIBILITY  FORMISCOMMUNICATIONUnderstanding that there exists a real and enforced Internet culture, and that this cultureembodies  communicative  values  drawn  from  North  American,  English-speaking  andacademic cultures, one might expect that participants from certain (formally educated,Western,  English-speaking)  cultures  will  have  the  least  difficulty  in  communicatingsuccessfully in greatest affinity with the online course environment, whereas individualsfrom  cultures  with  very  different  communicative  values  and  strategies  might  be  lesssuccessful  communicators,   according  to  cyberculture  standards.   We  find  that  thisprediction is supported by our analysis of participation patterns.   In our study group,non-aboriginal  Canadians  (individuals  born  and  educated  in  Canada,  within  thepredominantly English-speaking Euro-Canadian culture) posted a significantly highernumber of messages than, for example, aboriginal Canadian participants (Figure 1).   Itappears, then, that one important cultural ?gap?, which may function as a predictor ofonline  communicative  success,  is  the  gap  between  the  communicative  culture  of  anindividual, and the communication culture of the Internet itself.Cyberspace Values Implicit Enforcement Explicit Enforcement?  speed?  quick responseCourse design requires a minimum number oflearner postings per assignment, includingresponses to each others work, made ?on time??I found also that I was anxiously awaiting a facilitatorreply?.I realize the facilitators have other commitments andobligations, but it would be of greater benefit to me if I wereable to see a response at an earlier time?                 [Learner]?This online course really works when postings come in ontime and allow us all to get involved in the discussion? [Facilitator]?  debate/questionsThe underlying objective of requiring learners torespond to each other is to promote debate anddiscussion between multiple participants.? We continue the conversations, even when it?s difficult forus?We accept the questions others ask us ? asking questionsis okay.?                                                                  [Facilitator]?  informality No spell-checking facility in WebCT; limitedcapacity to for special formatting (e.g. for formalcommunication) without extensive knowledge ofhtml; no course recommendations regardingstructure of postings; no assessment of postingformat, spelling, style or presentation; coursedesign includes a ?Caf?? intended to promote socialand informal participant interaction.?hey you all?I hope you are doing well?it seems as thoughyou have had a wonderful time, you have gotten to know eachother better ? at least you have an idea of each other?sfaces?but not mine (oh yeah, I have an ?image? incyberspace??check me on my website?Anyway, my name isMichal chilion?I look forward to learning with you in thistrack of the journey. take care, Michal (oh, I forgot, I am themother of two teenagers ? a challenge)?               [Facilitator]?  reach?  opennessDiscussion board platform makes all postings?public?.?feel free to share thoughts and feelings openly?[Facilitator]Table 2.  Explicit and Implicit Enforcement of Cyberculture ValuesFALLING THROUGH THE CULTURAL GAPS? 7Cultural  gaps  can  also  exist  between  individual  communicators  from  differentbackgrounds, and we find evidence of these cultural gaps in the communications of ouronline course participants. For example, we observe in participants? ?self-introduction?postings some large difference in their approaches to online ?self-revelation?, and, indeed,in their notions of how identity is established.. Cultural variations in-group vs. individualfocus were evident in the variations in approach to self introductionOne South Asian Canadian learner wrote: ?This is Sara Nitzan from Montr?al, Quebec. I have lived here since 1971, but wasborn and raised in Bombay, India.  My family comes from the former Portuguese colonyof Goa in India.  I am married with 2 children who are now young adults???Sara identified herself primarily by membership in a national/cultural group, and inrelation  to  her  family.   In  response  to  the  same  request  for  self-introduction,  a  non-aboriginal  English-speaking  Canadian-born  Canadian  contributed  a  more  individualfocused introduction:??My  name  is  Batsheva  Carmela?.  My  job  is  Program  Coordinator  of  theInternational programs Office in the Faculty of commerce at [a Canadian University].We run training programs for government officials, managers, administrative personnel,etc. from (mostly) China, take care of visiting scholars who come to study for shorterperiods of time, help organize summer programs to other countries for undergraduatestudents?.On a personal side, I have a degree in History (Business minor) from WilfredLaurier University??This learner identified herself primarily by her professional role and experience, andby her academic qualifications and achievements. Why might such divergent perceptionsof personal culture, role and identity contribute to communicative challenges in an onlinesetting? We suggest that Gudykunst?s Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory (1995)may  be  useful  here.  Gudykunst  suggests  that  all  communicators  (including  onlinecommunicators) encounter each other as strangers ? and the wider the cultural gap thatexists  between  them,  the  greater  the  degree  of  uncertainty  and  anxiety.   As  anxietyincreases, the potential for miscommunication increases.  Anxiety must be ?managed? inorder for successful communication to take place.Individuals  from  different  cultural  backgrounds  will  employ  different  anxietymanagement  strategies,  with  varying  degrees  of  success.   For  example,  in  the  ?self-introduction? exchanges above, individuals are giving information about themselves inways that reflect their experience, the influences of their educational and group cultural?programming?.  The likelihood is, however, that neither is providing the other with thekind of culturally-expected and familiar personal information that would serve to reduceanxiety and promote better communications. The door is opened to hasty assumptions onboth sides about the others? cultures.4. Conclusions and Future Directions4.1  THEORETICAL  PERSPECTIVES  ON  INTERCULTURALCOMMUNICATION GAPSWe anticipate that a number of theoretical perspectives from Sociolinguistics, AppliedLinguistics, Genre and Literacy Theory and Aboriginal Education may shed further light8 K. REEDER, L. P. MACFADYEN, J. ROCHE AND M. CHASEon the ?cultural gaps? identified in our corpus, and on the need for negotiation of these inonline  communications.   For  example,  genre  theory  (Halliday  and  Martin,  1993;Halliday, 1994; Gee, 1999) suggests that cultures apprentice their members in preferredgenres of realizing everyday communicative exchanges. The contrast between Sara?s andBatsheva?s chosen genres (genealogy vs. r?sum?) for introducing themselves may createanything from very minor irritation to outright misunderstandings amongst members of agroup if they expect their own preferred genres to express important communicative acts.Equally unfortunate would be negative evaluations from instructors who, on the basis oftheir cultural expectations and professional training, might not be prepared to accept a jobr?sum?  or  a  traditional  genealogy  as  an  adequate  approach  to  performing  a  personalintroduction.Other communication gaps might also be illuminated by studies of second languageacquisition. Cummins (1984) found  that  (heavily  contextualized)  Basic  InterpersonalCommunicative  Skill  (?BICS?)  was  acquired  earlier,  and  more  quickly  by  youngimmigrant learners than the less contextually-supported Cognitive Academic LanguagePerformance  (?CALP?)  which  took  immigrant  students  up  to  a  further  five  years  toacquire to a native-like degree. It could well be that we found in our data something morethan an ability gap: as noted earlier, all of our participants could have been expected byvirtue of their professional and academic backgrounds to possess good levels of basiccommunication  skills.  Rather,  these  participants  may  have  experienced  confusion  ordoubts as to whether basic interpersonal communication, academic language, or perhapssomething in between (another site of negotiation?) was expected in the online situation.Finally,  the  linguistic  distinction  from  literacy  theory  (Scribner  &  Cole,  1981;Olson, 1994; Reeder, et al., 1996) between oral and literate uses of language could provea  rich  source  of  understanding  of  online  communication  corpora  such  as  the  presentmaterial, and raises the fundamental question of whether online participation of the sortwe have considered here is a variant of oral language, or of literate language, or a newhybrid of the two. This question has given rise to a spate of investigations and fruitfultheoretical  work.  For  instance,  Dudfield  (1999)  agrees  that  students  are  increasinglyengaging  in  what  she  calls  "hybrid  forms  of  literate  behaviour."  Gibbs  (2000)  hasextended this to suggest that new forms of communication are actually constructing "newforms  of  thinking,  perceiving  and  recording."  Essays  in  Gibson  &  Oviedo's  2000anthology  offer  a  range  of  perspectives  on  "the  ways  in  which  literacy  is  shifting  inrelation  to  new  technologies."  Thurstun  (2000)  has  examined  "perceptual  difficultiesposed by the new technology" and, together with Harpold (2000), discusses challenges ofreading electronic texts. Kramarae (1999) similarly discussed the new "visual literacy"required of Internet communicators, while Williams and Meredith (1996) attempted totrack development of electronic literacy in new Internet users. Discourse studies of onlinecommunications such as Crystal (2001) lend weight to the conclusion that corpora suchas ours represent some intermediate stage between oral and written discourse. We mightspeculate however that our corpus and others like it represent a new genre, neither spokennor written, yet drawing upon conventions of both. In any case, distance educators needto be cognizant of the relative ?fit? between their participants? origins in oral or literatecultures and the distinct genre requirements of online communication in e-learning.FALLING THROUGH THE CULTURAL GAPS? 9Even  some  of  the  most  basic  assumptions  about  electronically  mediatedcommunication  and  learning  still  have  to  be  examined  in  the  context  of  interculturalencounters. This in turn means that more consideration needs to be given to:1.  micro-studies of intercultural communication features (including encounters ofclosely related communication cultures) (length of exchanges, depth, topics andtaboo topics, initiation of talk and communicative roles, power distribution) aswell as to2.  the problems of generic course designs.With respect to the first concern, we intend to follow up the descriptive data wehave  developed  in  this  phase  of  our  study  with  microanalyses  conducted  with  largersamples of participants from systematically varied cultural backgrounds. Parameters ofinterest in such microanalyses of online interactions would include interaction depth (asexemplified by depth of hierarchies in discussion threads,) length as well as interculturaldistribution  of  postings  and  exchanges,  and  textual  coherence  within  exchanges.  Afruitful proposal along somewhat similar lines is offered by Belz (2003) who outlines aHallidayan  approach  to  such  microanalyses  of  online  discourse  (Halliday,  1994),  andargues that more detailed understanding of process rather than means is needed in thefield of intercultural learning as it bears upon language learning.Further, we are beginning a small set of case studies, not of individual participantsin our sample, but of those participants in interaction with one another, employing as itsunit of analysis what we term the ?electronic exchange.? An electronic exchange, like itscounterpart in face to face discourse analysis (Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975) consists of astretch of contiguous turns produced by a cluster of two or more members and boundedby a common topic of discussion, for instance ?late assignments,? or ?balancing studywith family responsibilities.? A useful, early theoretical exploration of potential units ofanalysis for online communication research is found in December (1996), while a recentexemplar of the use of case study methods in the field of second language learning isfound in Thorne (2003).At the outset, we indicated that our work tries to problematize the notion of culturein  the  context  of  computer-mediated  communication  (CMC),  and  claimed  that  a  lessessentialist and more dynamic, discourse-based understanding of culture was needed forthe sorts of analyses we wished to conduct. Perhaps a more fundamental problem is thatidentified  by  Ess  (1998),  who  argues  that  the  lack  of  an  adequate  theory  of  cultureprevents the analysis of the complexities of virtual cultures and virtual communities. Essrecognizes that theories of culture elaborated by Hofstede, Hall, Geertz (see especially,Abdelnour-Nocera, 1998, 2002) and Carey are used frequently by intercultural educators,but asks:Do these various definitions, enumerations, and observations [of culture] give us anunderstanding of culture which is adequate for examining, much less predicting ?the  complex  interactions  between  culture  and  technology??  Can  we  have  anadequate  theory  about  'culture'  and  CMC  without  considering  religiously-shapedcomponents of culture and worldview?? Do CMC technologies necessarily result inthe importation of specific cultural values (the issue of technological determinism)??Does the meaning of 'embodiment' ? need elaboration if our theories are to be morecomplete?? Are postmodern frames of reference, informed by McLuhan, Ong, etc.10 K. REEDER, L. P. MACFADYEN, J. ROCHE AND M. CHASEin communication theory ? fully adequate for understanding the interplay betweenculture and CMC? (Ess, 1998, pp.12-14.)Our  study  has  suggested  that  there  are  many  more  factors  inherent  in  interculturalcommunication that can enhance or adversely affect the success of e-learning courses orprograms. Those factors are not limited to ?off the shelf? inter-technical features such asdifferent power supplies, varying keyboards or non-matching plugs. They touch on thevery essence of the way we conceptualize our world.AcknowledgementsThe authors wish to acknowledge the support of a research grant from The University ofBritish Columbia Hampton Fund to Kenneth Reeder and Mackie Chase.ReferencesAbdat,  S.  and  Pervan,  G.  P.:  2000,  Reducing  the  Negative  Effects  of  Power  Distance  DuringAsynchronous  Pre-Meeting  Without  Using  Anonymity  in  Indonesian  Culture,  in  F.Sudweeks and C. 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