Skype as Cross-Cultural Communication: Dangers, Limitations, and Benefits

Skype: Dangers, Limitations, and Benefits

 skype

For our final project, we used Skype to converse with Chinese partners half way across the globe. We discussed American and Chinese films and cultural differences such as dorm arrangements and Saturday classes. Learning through these Skype conversations, we were able to conclude our study of East Asian culture films with an interactive and engaging assignment. Yet, what’s most astounding about the whole project is that if we had taken Chinese 280 a few decades ago, such a project wouldn’t have been feasible.

As it is, a 12-hour time difference makes it difficult to schedule conversations. Most students conversed with their partners during earlier morning or late in the evening. However, without technological advancements, getting to “meet” our partners face to face would have been impossible. Backtrack a couple more decades to the 1970s, before cell phones or even e-mail became ubiquitous[1], and it’s hard to imagine how much more time-consuming the project could have been. Instigating that first conversation and scheduling two more appointments is undoubtedly easier in this age, as well as cheaper. International telephone calls totaling a minimum of three hours would have been expensive. Skype let us talk for free.

The opportunities that technological advancements have afforded us, especially in comparison to our parents and grandparents, are pretty amazing. Our world is increasingly connected, and programs like Skype have facilitated globalization. Given that Skype’s basic functions like IM and video calls are free, the application is popular; at current peak times, there are as many as 40 million users online.[2] As of 2011, Skype had around 700 million users, which was an enticingly large and diverse enough market to encourage Microsoft’s purchase of Skype from e-Bay for $8.5 billion dollars.[3]

While it remains to be seen whether the purchase was a wise investment, Skype has remained relevant in this connected world. Our class’s application of Skype proves its relevancy. However, while we used Skype for innocuous means – to further cross-cultural communication and complement our study of film and East Asian culture, technology also allows more dangerous opportunities. In Syria, rebel movements used Skype to coordinate counterattacks. The increased venues for communications have allowed for better organization and dissemination of important information, such as the movement of tanks and military forces. One article from the New York Times comments: “If the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were Twitter Revolutions, then Syria is becoming the Skype Rebellion.”[4]

While Skype isn’t a weapon for the average user who primarily utilizes the application for personal communication, there are other privacy concerns. Although Skype encrypts calls and remains relatively safe, its rise in popularity means Skype now provides an enticing platform to spread malware. Breaches in Skype’s security could also locate users as the program utilizes satellite phone service.[5] Additionally, Skype’s commitment to ensuring user privacy does not extend to its partners. In 2008, China was proven to monitor text messages sent through Skype.[6] Earlier this year, a computer-science grad student confirmed that China has been able to hack Skype to establish “keyword systems.” Keywords unsurprisingly encompass political, sexual, and violent phrases, but these extensive lists include words that translate to “kinky cinema” and “throwing eggs.”[7] Typing any of these phrases results in the user/conversation being flagged, so if any of us typed potentially controversial terms in Chinese, we could have been monitored by the Chinese government!

While Skype is undoubtedly a resource for cross-cultural communication, with technology there are always potential dangers that accompany positive opportunities. And while Skype allows my roommate to see and talk to her grandparents in Germany every few weeks, technology has not yet surpassed the barrier of the screen. During this course, we’ve learned that film is often used as a tool – its functions can include propaganda, stimulating social change, raising awareness of issues, and promoting nationalism. As such, they can be informative and provide a “screen” or “window” into another culture, or even one culture’s assumptions of another, in the case of Hollywood depictions of East Asians.

Similarly, Skype provides a “screen” into the life of a Chinese college student. Through conversations with our partners, we were able to learn about their daily life, and discuss differences. In the process, we found that there were differences, as expected, but also surprising similarities – such as a shared love for chick flicks or horror films, or a similar plan for the future. Yet for all that was gained, Skype is, like film, only a “screen.” Conversations via Skype typically take place indoors, in one location, and the camera is stagnant and positioned so that the users’ face and perhaps shoulders are displayed. That face-to-face interaction allows for a richer conversation. We can use not only tone of voice and diction, but also facial cues to communicate.

Yet as a few students remarked, facial expressions aren’t conclusive and only comprise a percentage of body language. In fact, we often privilege facial expressions as means of emotional communication more than we should; full body arrangements are more successful at properly conveying emotions. Additionally, “facial expressions can be ambiguous and subjective when viewed independently.”[8] Although a great alternative to audio-only calls, Skype is by no means comparable to an in-person interaction.

However, this is not to dismiss the significance of our final project and the benefits of Skype. Technology and new media have allowed our generation to connect and learn in ways our parents and grandparents couldn’t, and we have largely benefited from the increased venues. Perhaps in the future, technology will better allow us to widen the screen and allow for even greater communication. Who knows? Our children and grandchildren may have holographic conversations incorporated in their college classes. Attending classes may even become digitized. Film itself as a medium may also drastically change.

Globalization has resulted in an expansion and sharing of cultures. For example, Chinese students are familiar with American brands like McDonalds. The Internet and a greater emphasis on international news mean people have more access to information about other countries. Film as entertainment versus education may be rendered obsolete by other forms of recreational activities or news.

As for our film class, we’ve taken a step with our final project in exploring such possible venues. In engaging with Chinese college students, we’re actively pursuing connections and applications of what we’ve learned, as well as questioning what else is possible.

Click here for a sample of flagged keywords


[1] “A Brief History of Email” cs.umd.edu. (n.d.)

[2] “About Skype.” skype.com. (n.d.)

[3] Aamoth, Doug. “A Brief History of Skype.” TIME.com. (May 20 2011).

[4], 5 Chozick, Amy. “For Syria’s Rebel Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly Dangerous Tool.” Nytimes.com. (Nov. 30 2012).

[6]  Elegant, Simon. “Skype and China: Who Would have Thought It?” Time.com. (Oct. 30, 2008).

[7] Gallagher, Ryan. “Chinese Skype Surveillance Trigger Words Uncovered by Researcher.” Slate.com. (Mar. 8 2013).

[8] Kelly, Morgan. “Don’t read my lips! Body language trumps the face for conveying intense emotions.” Princeton.edu. (Jan 15 2013).