Navigating the Tides of Change – Social Media and Medical Interpreters

Do you ever find yourself scrolling through the endless sea of content on social media? Do you feel like you are becoming lazy, uncultured, or just lost at sea? By navigating the web of online social spheres, you could consider yourself an explorer of this new cultural realm. One issue at the forefront of this new cultural world is the impact that social media and the constant flow of digital information globally have had on our cultural beliefs and how those beliefs are shared.

How is Culture Changing?

When we talk about culture we often think of traditional beliefs and customs, but we tend to focus less on contemporary culture and how it is currently developing.

In classes and during presentations about cultural beliefs in health care, we talk about herbal teas, acupuncture, voodoo, and various other practices. We might think of culture-specific health care beliefs as something of the past or “my grandma taught me that”.  We may think of them as things that only take place in certain countries or regions of the world.

However, now we’re in the digital age and there are no borders on the internet.

Cultural information is being shared in language groups across borders and even between different language groups. By accessing and living in this digital world, we can find ourselves immersed in different cultures, learning different values.

Culture has always been shared and passed from generation to generation. This has been done in many different ways: storytelling, clay tablets, paintings, theater, photographs, audio recordings, video recordings, books, movies, etc.

Now in the digital world we have new ways to transmitting cultural information, namely internet-based communication and memes.

What are Memes and Why are They Important to Culture?

What is a Meme? here are a couple definitions:

  1. “…an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations:

    an element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to anther by imitation or other nongenetic means.”
    Definitions, Meanings, & Spanish Translations |

  2. “While memes today are recognized as amusing or interesting items that spread widely through the internet, the word itself dates to the 1970s. Originally “memes” were conceptualized as units of cultural transfer, and could be boiled down to “ideas that catch on and pass between people via culture.”
    The History of Meme | Word Origins | Merriam-Webster

Overall, a meme can be understood as a mode of transmission for cultural information, even in its most current form as funny pictures with words added or videos with sound and text. Some might feel that today’s memes are a lesser form of cultural transmission because they seem overly simplified or silly. However, the sheer volume of content and cultural information being transferred globally in the form of memes begs our attention as medical interpreters.

Why are Memes Important to Medical Interpreters?

What do memes have to do with medical interpreting? Memes have layers of cultural context and as interpreters we are in a unique position to be able to analyze the cultural messages that are being conveyed. As medical interpreters we have a responsibility to upkeep our cultural competence according to the code of ethics.

Increase your cultural awareness by identifying the cultural references being passed on through memes. You could practice culture brokering by analyzing and explaining memes from different cultures, highlighting the cultural values and differences.

An Important Consideration for Cultural Exploration on the Internet

Not everything that you see on the internet is true and stereotypes also spread like wildfire across these platforms. Use your best judgment and remember the concepts of “active culture” and impartiality as you embark on your journey.

So, next time you find yourself lost in the sea of social media and you come across a meme, take a second and observe it as though you were looking at a historical or cultural artifact and see what information you can uncover. Check out some of the videos below to engage further with this topic!

Videos related to this topic:

This is a short video explaining the connection between memes and language:

This is a 5-minute video from the BBC that explains the history of memes:

Tamas Farkas
Language Access Program Director
The Cross Cultural Health Care Program

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