No, The Internet Doesn’t Talk Like a Woman

In his May 27, 2015 article, The Internet Talks Like a Woman, Ben Crair notes that the “anonymity”* of the Internet doesn’t stop men and women from behaving differently online:

  1. Men post more – in length of posts and amount of posts – than women, at least in more public domains like comments sections and facebook walls.
  2. Men are more antagonistic, and women are more polite.
  3. Women use more “netspeak” – like emoji, exclamation points, and creative lexical features – than men.

These differences are not surprising to people who study how gender and language interact. But, these differences are not related to gender itself. Rather, these differences are related to our beliefs about how people of each gender should behave. Because these differences in Internet practices are connected to beliefs about genders, rather than the actual genders, I argue that the Internet talks like a person – not a woman or a man.

It is not surprising that men post more than women, since this situation mirrors real life interactions. Men talk more in public spaces. (Women talk more in private spaces.) Linguists think this difference in talk time reflects who has more status in a situation. Often in our society, men have more status than a woman by default. (Yes, women and men are closer to being equal in status than we were previously, but that doesn’t mean we’re exactly equal in status yet.) We know that public talk time is tied more to status than to gender because in situations in which the woman clearly has more status than the man, the woman takes more public talk time. We see this when the woman has more seniority in her job than a man or when the topic is considered “feminine,” giving the woman expert status. Our beliefs about who has more status – even if we didn’t know we had them – is reflected in who gets public talk time, both on- and off-line.

It’s also not surprising that women are more polite online, since many of us have the belief that women are (or should be) more polite – and nicer in general – than men. (Here’s an exception). And when women don’t live up to the expectation of being polite, there are repercussions. Women are called names, sent rape threats, and get lower student evaluation ratings. Women can choose to not act in a nice or polite manner. And some of us do. But for many of us, dropping politeness markers isn’t worth the repercussions.

Lastly, women’s higher use of netspeak is likely connected to the belief that women should be polite. Netspeak can be used as a politeness strategy by marking the tone of a post. For example, if I end my sentence with “.” rather than “:)” or “!”, you may think that I’m mad. And, arguably, it is not “nice” or “polite” to be mad. Netspeak does a lot of communicative work for us – it can help the writer show sarcasm, sincerity, or general mood. Netspeak is so useful that most of us have, at some time, used some type of it. Yes, even men use emoji and exclamation points.

So, no, the Internet does not talk like a woman. Maybe you could say the Internet talks like a man, since men have a bigger public presence online. But, I think it’s safe to say that, really, the Internet just talks like a person – a person who has a certain status and a certain expectation of being (or not being) polite.

*I put anonymity in quotes, since I think a lot of us use the Internet in a way that reveals our gender, age, and/or region.

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