The popularity of cyberspace interactions and relationships in the U.S. and other countries has increased dramatically in recent years, and research interest in this area has increased accordingly (e.g., Dainton & Aylor, 2002). The Internet provides another context and channel for people to meet with strangers for the first time, initiate meaningful and satisfying conversations, and build stable, long-term relationships, similar to face-to-face (FTF) interactions (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). Through frequent and extensive verbal exchange of social information, partners interacting on the Internet may actively engage in self-disclosure and come to feel close to and bond with each other. Accordingly, many people regularly use the Internet to meet a special someone or to maintain personal relationships (e.g.,Parks & Floyd, 1996; Ryan, 1995; Stafford, Kline, & Dimmick, 1999). Some computer-mediated communication (CMC) researchers (e.g., Bonebrake, 2002) believe that online relationships are already regarded as normal experiences.
Despite the fact that CMC has become a common tool of communication in industrialized countries, little is yet known about how people utilize CMC as a relational communication channel in different cultures. It is widely recognized that Internet access and frequency of online interactions in East Asian countries are comparable to (if not higher than) in the U.S. (Johnston, 2001; Lu Stout, 2001). According to Ma (1996), most cross-cultural studies comparing the communication styles of East Asians and North Americans have focused on FTF interactions.
The present study addresses theoretical and practical questions regarding CMC and its impact on relationship development among people in East Asia (Japan and South Korea) and the U.S. The first question concerns the extent to which theories of FTF communication and relationship development are applicable to CMC settings in these countries. For example, social penetration theory (SPT) assumes that relationship escalation is closely tied to information exchanges in communication (i.e., self-disclosure) and the uncertainty reduction that results (Altman & Taylor, 1973; Berger, 1988). Yet, this assumption is primarily based on observations of FTF interactions. Will the assumptions of social penetration theory hold in CMC in different cultures? Only one study has investigated an international sample to address a similar question (Parks & Roberts, 1998); however, the composition of the sample made it impossible to perform a cross-cultural comparison. Second, on a pragmatic level, the present study tests to what extent people in different cultures use the Internet for interpersonal purposes, and what the implications are of this use.
Given that Internet users have few spatial constraints, may engage in interactions and relationships with foreign Internet users, and may encounter unexpected communication behaviors and barriers due to cultural differences, it is necessary to conduct an empirical study to help better understand the theoretical and practical implications of culture on CMC and relationship development and facilitate relationship building for intracultural and intercultural partners.
Social Penetration Theory and Relationship Development
Relationships develop as the level of social penetration increases (Altman & Taylor, 1973). In other words, people feel closer to their partners as they disclose more intimate and personal information about themselves, and they expect their partners to do the same. Social penetration has typically been investigated in terms of self-disclosure, the common indicators of which are the depth and breadth of information exchange. The main route to social penetration is through sharing a wide range of topics (breadth) and personally revealing information that is at the core of one’s self-concept (depth). Both depth and breadth are equally crucial to the process of social penetration. Relationships develop in a “gradual and orderly fashion from superficial to intimate levels of exchange as a function of both immediate and forecast outcomes” (Taylor & Altman, 1987, p. 259).
The pattern of self-disclosure has a significant impact on relationship escalation and progress. In the early stages of typical FTF interactions, people exchange non-intimate, impersonal topics (low in depth) and open up and share a more intimate level of information increasingly over time as they find their partners to be rewarding. This applies to virtually all types of interpersonal relationships, from friendship to romantic relationship (Altman & Taylor, 1973; Taylor & Altman, 1987). Breadth (i.e., the range of topics) of self-disclosure is also limited when the duration of relationship is short. Generally speaking, however, the rate of increase in impersonal topics (breadth) is faster than the rate of increase in intimate information (depth). Research has suggested that greater self-disclosure is linked to greater emotional involvement in dating relationships (Rubin, Hill, Peplau, & Dunkel-Schetter, 1980). In marital relationships, greater self-disclosure is also associated with greater marital satisfaction (Hansen & Schuldt, 1984). However, in order to understand fully the phenomenon of self-disclosure, it is necessary to consider multiple factors that may influence self-disclosure (e.g., duration of interaction, context, and culture).
Duration of interaction affects self-disclosure. In general, as relationships develop, partners communicate less superficial and more deeply personal topics, incrementally penetrate one another’s public identities to reach their core identities, and become intimate (Walther, 1993). This process of social penetration depends on a cost-benefit analysis that each person performs as he/she considers the possibility of a close personal relationship. If the perceived mutual benefits outweigh the costs of greater vulnerability caused by self-disclosure, the process of social penetration and relationship development will proceed (Altman & Taylor, 1973). This means that the depth and breadth of information, taking into consideration the length of the relationship, will by and large reflect the quality of relationship.
Although in escalating relationships the amount of self-disclosure is in general a useful index of relationship quality (e.g., involvement, satisfaction, and intimacy), in established relationships self-disclosure alone may not be the most reliable indicator of relationship quality. In the long haul, privacy and independence may be as important to both partners as self-disclosure and intimacy (Altman, Vinsel, & Brown, 1981). These assumptions and research findings are all based on face-to-face communication in Western contexts.
Context is another factor that may affect self-disclosure. For example, research has indicated that self-disclosure is not necessarily incremental over time but sometimes rather is in the form of “quick revelation” without relational commitment or escalation; this is called the “stranger-on-the-train (or plane, etc.)” phenomenon. In this context, a person may confide a great deal of personal, revealing information without intending to become close to a total stranger whom he or she has just met, presumably to unload bottled-up emotions and maintain his or her own psychological (and even physical) health (Pennebaker, Colder, & Sharp, 1990). The Internet provides another ideal context for quick self-disclosure in which interactants may break the rules typically governing self-disclosure (e.g., that it should be a gradual process). Based on empirical research, Ma (1996) claimed that East Asian and North American college students tend to display greater self-disclosure in CMC as compared to FTF interactions, because they perceive little or no risk related to self-disclosure in CMC (e.g., no physical presence, no commitment). However, the East Asian students were not perceived by the North American students as self-disclosing as much as the East Asian students perceived themselves to be. Culture is thus another factor that may influence self-disclosure, and is the focus of this study.
CMC is a common yet unique interaction setting that may substitute for and/or supplement FTF interactions. According to Utz (2000), approximately 80% of MUDders (users of multiuser domains) reported the formation of online personal relationships. In the same vein, in a study with an international sample (91% from the U.S., Canada, and Australia), Parks and Roberts (1998) found that approximately 94% of the participants had formed at least one actively involved personal relationship on the Internet.
Still, it is notable that scholars do not converge with respect to the question on whether or not, and to what extent, individuals develop meaningful relationships on the Internet, as compared to FTF. Although many believe that the Internet has liberated communicators and relationship partners from traditional constraints and boundaries like time and place, CMC has apparent disadvantages in terms of building a personal relationship as compared to FTF interactions, in which an abundance of verbal and nonverbal cues are available.
One of the barriers in CMC is a higher degree of uncertainty about interactants due to limited cues. Some scholars (Berger & Calabrese, 1975; Parks & Adelman, 1983) maintain that CMC, as compared to FTF, should result in greater uncertainty and therefore make it more difficult to identify behavioral norms, rules governing relationships, and attributions and interpretations of certain behaviors displayed in interactions. This could end up preventing or discouraging the development of intimate personal relationships. Attraction in CMC settings appears unlikely to occur because interpersonal attraction typically assumes physical presence, frequent interaction, and access to a wide range of social information (Lea & Spears, 1995). In addition, a lack of nonverbal intimacy cues or affect displays between partners poses challenges for online relationships (Lea & Spears, 1995). The text-based nature of most CMC and its relative lack of socioemotional cues may even facilitate aggressive and impulsive behavior, as a result of which people may forge fewer socioemotional bonds (Kim, 2000).
A lack of interaction history and shared norms poses another challenge to close relationship development online. CMC users tend to engage in more verbal aggression, inappropriate self-disclosure, and conflict-inducing behavior than do FTF interaction partners (e.g., Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & Sethna, 1991; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). For example, “flaming” poses a threat to online relationship development (e.g., Lea, O’Shea, Fung, & Spears, 1990; Witmer, 1997). Flaming refers to abrasive and impulsive, or even abusive behavior, and is common in CMC. Witmer (1997) maintains that flaming may keep quality online communication and relational development from occurring. Slouka (1995) is also one of those who view online relationships as impersonal, “shallow,” illusory, and even “dangerous.” In all, considering the uncertainty related to the lack of prerequisites for relationship development mentioned above (e.g., frequent interaction and nonverbal affect display), relationship development would appear to be a challenging task for CMC users.
These pessimistic assumptions about relationship development in CMC, however, were subsequently questioned by new theories and empirical findings. Walther and his associates (Walther & Burgoon, 1992; Walther, Anderson, & Park, 1994) proposed a social information processing (SIP) perspective on CMC that maintained that CMC’s weaknesses due to channel deficiency and reduced cues could be overcome over time if interaction occurs frequently and is sustained for an extended period of time. Although few (especially, nonverbal) social cues are present in CMC, self-disclosure can occur through elaborate verbal exchanges and can accurately represent the level of relationship development. Therefore, given enough time for message exchange and self-disclosure, intimate relationship development can occur in CMC just as in FTF interactions (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). People learn to verbalize and elaborate feelings on the Internet that would be nonverbal and hence implicit in FTF interactions (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). CMC partners can not only become intimate over time, but may even become “hyperpersonal” and create a greater sense of intimacy than FTF partners can (Walther, 1996). The equivalent of nonverbal symbols (i.e., emoticons) and other visual signs can contribute to the success of relationship development over time.
Some research findings confirm these SIP-based speculations. Utz (2000) found support for the SIP theory in a study of predominantly German college students. Internet users in Utz’s study reported developing friendships online and expressing emotion through paralanguage (i.e., emoticons such as smileys). The link between the use of paralanguage and making friends online is modified by the time spent on the Internet and the verbal expression of relational content. Therefore, a sustained online interaction should be able to overcome the absence of physical displays of affection and lead to a close, meaningful relationship.
Utz’s findings can be further explained by social exchange theory and social penetration theory. These theories are rather optimistic about relationship development via CMC and focus on processes and rewards associated with exchanges of verbal, text-based information (as opposed to nonverbal cues). For example, social exchange theory predicts that rewards or positive outcomes deriving from CMC are incentives for forming and maintaining relationships (e.g., Kelley, 1979). Participants in Utz’s study might have found their interactions with online friends rewarding and worthwhile. As discussed above, social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973) predicts that when people perceive that rewards associated with self-disclosure outweigh costs, they will reveal personal information to indicate their commitment to the ongoing relationship, which will in turn increase relationship quality. Likewise, according to SIP, the disadvantages of CMC as a means of relationship development can be overcome eventually through positive self-presentation (e.g., controlling and editing communication) and idealization of the partner, which intensifies interaction between the partners (Walther, 1993, 1996; Walther & Burgoon, 1992). In general, then, CMC may be comparable to FTF in terms of self-disclosure. Yet, the implications of self-disclosure on online relationship development remain untested.
CMC, Self-Disclosure, and Relationship Development
Once they become established, online personal relationships demonstrate the same relational dimensions and qualities as FTF relationships: e.g., greater interdependence, predictability/understanding, code convergence, commitment, and online and offline network sharing/convergence (e.g., Parks & Floyd, 1996; Parks & Roberts, 1998). Parks and Floyd (1996) observed moderate to high degrees of these relational qualities in online relationships. A majority of participants (61%) in Parks and Floyd’s study felt intimate with their online partners, and over half (57%) of the respondents perceived that their online conversations covered a wide range of topics. With respect to code convergence (i.e., the extent to which partners develop a specialized and efficient way of communication in order to reinforce their relational identity), CMC participants also reported using highly developed, personalized codes (Parks & Floyd, 1996). About half of the Internet users also displayed high commitment to the ongoing online relationship in question (Parks & Floyd, 1996).
However, a vast majority of Parks and Floyd’s (1996) respondents (more than two-thirds) fell well below the midpoint of the scale regarding network convergence, which involves both sharing pre-existing online networks (online network convergence) and sharing pre-existing offline, FTF social networks (offline network convergence). Network convergence was greater than the average when only other online contacts were considered (i.e., online relationship partners are more likely to introduce the other to their existing online network than to their existing FTF social network). According to Parks and Floyd (1996), approximately 30% of the respondents had highly advanced online personal relationships, another 30% had less developed relationships, and 40% had no online relationships. One-third of those in Parks and Floyd’s study (1996) who started a personal relationship in cyberspace eventually moved beyond CMC and met their partner FTF. Parks and Floyd concluded that online relationships can be supplemental or instrumental to normative offline personal relationships.
Formation and development of personal relationships via CMC appears to be prevalent in diverse Internet interaction settings. Parks and Roberts (1998) replicated Parks and Floyd (1996) in a more advanced Internet context (i.e., MOOs) with an international sample, primarily representing Western cultures (the U.S., approximately 80%, Canada, 9%, and Australia, 3%). Parks and Roberts’ respondents’ levels of relationship development were, on average, moderate to high in terms of interdependence, intimacy (breadth and depth of conversation), code convergence, perspective taking (“predictability/understanding”), commitment, and online network convergence. In the present study, the convergence of online relationship partners into offline social networks occurred about half of the time, and approximately 41% of the respondents rated their level of offline convergence high, which somewhat replicates Parks and Floyd’s (1996) previous finding (as stated above, one-third of the respondents were self-reportedly high on offline network convergence). Other evidence in the literature suggests that online relationships can develop into serious FTF dating relationships or even marriage (Bruckman, 1992; Reid, 1991, cited in Parks & Floyd, 1996). Given the moderate to high levels of self-disclosure and other positive relational characteristics in CMC (e.g., Parks & Floyd, 1996; Utz, 2000), these relational outcomes are not surprising.
Counterevidence to the positive impact of self-disclosure on online relationship development also exists in the research literature. Ma (1996) observed that people who self-disclose in CMC do not appear to have the same level of commitment as those who do it in FTF. As discussed above, people self-disclose for a different reason (e.g., low risk) in CMC as compared to FTF. However, in Ma’s study, the participants were East Asians and North Americans, and their reports were based on their perceptions of intercultural (versus intracultural) interactions in CMC. Therefore, one might imagine that factors other than self-disclosure could have affected their perceptions of risk and commitment in these interactions. One possibility is that in intracultural CMC, the partners are typically not as far apart geographically as in intercultural, international CMC. Supporting this reasoning, in a study with an intracultural sample, Wolak, Mitchell, and Finkelhor (2002) found that about one-third of the participants indicated that their CMC partners were in the vicinity, and more than two-thirds had offline contact (e.g., phone, FTF). In another study, online relationship partners (who met online) showed empathy for others and enjoyed genuine relationships in an intracultural study (McCown, Fischer, Page, et al., 2001).
Another possible explanation is that miscommunication may be more frequent in intercultural CMC versus FTF, resulting in dissatisfaction and confusion with the interaction. Ma (1996) indicated that in an intercultural CMC study, North American and East Asian partners (mis)perceived and (mis)interpreted the other’s self-disclosure behavior due to different frames of reference. These might have infringed on the self-reported levels of commitment and relationship development.
Taken together, these studies lead to the prediction that partners in online relationships can create and preserve a quality of relationship equal or comparable to that of FTF relationships. Therefore, the following hypothesis was posited:
H1: The effect of self-disclosure on relationship quality in CMC is not different from the effect of self-disclosure on relationship quality in FTF interactions.
Culture, Self-Disclosure, and Relationship Development in CMC
Theories about FTF interpersonal interactions have often times been criticized for Eurocentric bias, meaning that they may be valid and useful in Western sociocultural contexts but fail to work outside non-Western contexts. For example, L. Chen (2003) states that culture’s influence on interpersonal communication is most evident in self-disclosure in terms of topic variety (breadth) and intimacy (depth). A direct and open (low-context) communication style is expected in individualistic cultures, whereas indirectness and restraint in self-disclosure (high-context communication style) are desirable in collectivistic cultures (Gudykunst & Nishida, 1986). In short, individualists tend to self-disclose more than do collectivists (G. M. Chen, 1995; Ting-Toomey, 1991). Therefore, one might predict that in some cultures self-disclosure is not as significant a factor in relationship development as it would be in other cultures, at least, in FTF communication settings.
Contradicting this speculation, recent literature on the associations between positive FTF communication strategies and relationship development suggests that the effect of self-disclosure on relationship quality is rather similar across cultures. Yum and Canary (1997) found that although Korean romantic partners tend to engage in self-disclosure (i.e., open and direct communication) less than do their American counterparts, both Koreans’ and Americans’ self-perceived degrees of self-disclosure were positively associated with the quality of relationship in terms of, e.g., liking, trust, commitment, and mutual influence. One should note that the participants in Yum and Canary’s (1997) study were young college students who had been educated in democratic and egalitarian beliefs and values. It appears that, regardless of culture, young people have similar expectations about communication and the quality of close relationships they choose to form and continue.
The amount of self-disclosure in CMC may also be similar across cultures. One study specifically compared self-disclosure in bulletin board systems (BBSs) between East Asians and North Americans and found that regardless of cultural membership, the amount of self-disclosure was greater in CMC than in FTF conversations (Kim & Raja, 1991, cited in Ma, 1996). Kim and Raja speculated that in CMC, self-disclosure is high because the participants may perceive a relative absence of cultural constraints and thus feel less need for inhibition or self-monitoring as in FTF interactions. However, Kim and Raja did not focus on the specifics of self-disclosure (e.g., context and goal) for the purpose of developing or maintaining a relationship.
In light of the equivocal findings in the extant cross-cultural FTF communication literature, and the lack of cross-cultural research on the association between self-disclosure and relationship development in CMC, the following question was posited:
Q1: Does the magnitude of the association between self-disclosure and relationship quality in CMC vary among Americans, Japanese, and Koreans?
Culture and Types of Online Relationships
Prior research has shown that online relationships are likely to involve opposite-sex partners. Parks and Floyd (1996) reported that online opposite-sex relationships are more common than online same-sex relationships. A majority of people who are involved in an online relationship identify their relationship as friendship, and among those friendships, slightly more were opposite-sex than same-sex (Parks & Floyd, 1996). Less than 10% of Parks and Floyd’s (1996) respondents described their online relationships as romantic. Among those who have an online relationship, 41% were close friendships, 26% were friendships, and 26% were romantic relationships. Similarly, Parks and Roberts (1998) found that a vast majority of online relationships (approximately 84%) were involved with opposite-sex partners. Among close friends, 90% were opposite-sex. Wolak et al. (2002) also reported that most participants (more than 70%) in their nation-wide survey of 1,500 adolescent Internet users identified their online relationships as cross-gender relationships; 14% being close friendships and 2% being online romances. All in all, these studies suggest that online relationship development is most common between opposite-sex partners.
Considering that online interactions may go beyond the traditional boundaries and cultural constraints (e.g., time, place, and relationship norms) of interpersonal communication—and, in fact, people can find interaction partners online who have a wide range of similarities yet live in a place thousands of miles apart—cross-cultural variation may not exist with respect to relationship type and the gender of relationship partners. Therefore, a hypothesis was posited:
H2: Regardless of culture, a majority of relationships formed through CMC are opposite-sex friendships, versus same-sex friendships and romantic relationships.