Have you ever noticed how the ways in which people communicate with each other are changing now? I wrote a post a little while back in response to a Straits Times commentary about mobile phone use in Singapore, where I criticised the writer for singling women out for their supposed overuse of the devices in what he considered inappropriate situations. My point was that perhaps new technologies that enable social media use speak to women in ways that might seem threateningly hypersocial to men.
There is a brilliant article on TechCrunch about how women rule the Internet due to their sheer numerical presence and intensity of activity. This is certainly interesting from the marketing angle that the writer takes, but from a communications perspective, I think it also points to what I have come to see as the feminization of interaction patterns. I was recently in the privileged position of being copied on a series of e-mails between my husband and his travel agent, and thoroughly enjoyed my fly-on-the-wall status. The statements were terse and functional. “Can you do this for me?” “Yes I can, but this is how much it will cost.” This utilitarian exchange was fascinating to someone who embeds her main message in pleasantries, subjunctives and conditionals. Of course this on its own does not suffice to back up my theory. After all, it’s possible that women in business situations are equally terse, and maybe I am just unusually verbose.
So I am going to introduce another observation. When I engage in text chats with men (that sounds terrible, but I really hope you know what I mean) I notice a difference between older men who are late adopters of such platforms, and younger men who practically grew up with the technology. The younger men are quicker on the draw, use more emoticons in more integrated ways, introduce more pleasantries, and are more adept at keeping the conversation going beyond the main message conveyed. It would appear that younger men have discovered, through the affordances of the internet in general and social media in particular, what women have always known. There is pleasure in spinning out a conversation, in talking for the sake of it, in using lots of words, and in expressing emotions freely. If these younger men are digital natives then their older counterparts are digital immigrants (thank you, Marc Prensky).
But perhaps this age dichotomy is unfair because there are some immigrants who embrace their new cultures much more enthusiastically and skillfully than others. At the same time, the gender dichotomy is unfair because there have always been women who communicate more like men and men who communicate more like women. As with so many aspects of human behavior, it’s not so much a dichotomy as a continuum. Where does this leave my theory? Could it still work?
I think so, although I’d still have to find ways to test it (and in all likelihood people already are doing work in this area. There is no such thing as a completely new idea after all). What is needed is to disengage gender-based communication patterns from gendered bodies. So we accept that there are masculine patterns of communication and feminine patterns of communications, but that these don’t necessarily have to reside in male and female bodies respectively. Online social media with all its communicative affordances wraps itself around and supports feminine patterns very thoroughly, and digital natives, as well as enthusiastic immigrants, find that they are able to internalise those patterns.
There are still messy areas to sort out. Who are the people who most easily embrace the new communication patterns? What predisposes them to accept them in the first place? What are the elements of the new patterns? How do online and offline communication patterns differ when viewed through this gendered lens? Are there differences even within the use of feminized patterns between the gendered bodies of digital natives?
Yup. Very messy. But imagine how much fun it will be sorting out the mess! I have skype, google talk, and blackberry messenger on my mobile device and I’m not afraid to use them. Want to chat about it?