Sex and text

Research is higlighting the gender divide on the very small screen, as a new study shows women convey more emotion through text messages than men.

Susan Herring and Asta Zelenkauskaite of Indiana University (IU) conducted a study to determine whether there are differences in the way each gender expresses itself in text

Text messaging data was collected through an interactive music channel (iTV) in Italy, which broadcasts mobile phone text comments on TV and the Internet. The researchers studied 1,452 text messages from two hours of programming on two consecutive days.

“Studying texting practices is important because it is a popular mode of communication and it has its own lingo according to subculture. We are especially seeing this with
preteens,” said Carmen Stein, USF doctoral student and licensed psychotherapist.

To evaluate the expressiveness of text communication, Herring and Zelenkauskaite looked at the use of symbols, abbreviations and acronyms as well as message content, length and frequency.

“Overall, women are more social and in touch with their emotions than men, and this would absolutely transfer in text messages,” Stein said.

IU researchers predicted that men would use more words and abbreviations in their texts than women because previous gender studies showed men tend to dominate
public conversation and write more and longer public computer-mediated messages.

“I thought that women would be texting longer and more frequently because that’s what I observe in the classroom,” said Kim Murray, USF professor of English composition.

Murray cites Louann Brizendine’s controversial book, The Female Brain, as offering another reason why women might’ve texted more than men on the iTV program, which doubles as a dating market.

“Connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain. Sharing secrets that have romantic and sexual implications activates those centers even more … It’s a major dopamine and oxytocin rush,” Brizendine wrote.

Contrary to Herring and Zelenkauskaite’s hypothesis, women in the study posted 60 percent more text messages to the program than men. Women’s texts, on average, were longer and more frequently manipulated the spelling of words to use fewer
characters. However, men more frequently omitted punctuation.

The researchers reason that women are better at expressing themselves through text messages than their male counterparts because they have a greater tendency to assume a lively playfulness — a quality deemed attractive in females. Women used more abbreviations or interjections to represent enthusiasm, sadness, emphasis and individuality. Men used more ordinary writing, which the researchers say symbolically represents conventionally masculine qualities of accomplishment and strength.

“The show’s time is in the afternoon, when more women are apt to comment,” Murray said. “However, I was surprised to see how many men were texting in the afternoon. This could be a sign that gender binaries are breaking down, but this particular study can’t prove this.”

She said women in the study showed a greater range of communication styles.

“Code-switching (using different styles of language in different contexts) allows adaptation to multiple environments, and people in non-dominant groups have to develop a wide range of communication skills in order to fit in socially and economically,” Murray said.

Stein said men send shorter text messages that get to the point, while women tell stories.

Doctoral student and counselor Seriashia Chatters said men are better at setting aside emotions to focus on facts and solve conflicts.

Chatters said a person’s upbringing, peers and exposure to media shape how he or she communicates.

“When a girl gets hurt, she is babied and allowed to show emotions. Boys, on the other hand, are conditioned to show strength by shoving feelings aside,” she said. “However, lines of masculinity and femininity are beginning to blur as forthcoming males are more able to express themselves.”

Murray said she believes biology plays a part in gendered conversational styles because some studies have shown that the “corpus callosum,” the bridge connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain whose size mat reflect verbal ability, is larger in women than in men.

The study reports that many areas of text messaging need further exploration because the iTV study was conducted in one culture and context. The researchers questioned whether they would find different results in a serious text-based program covering politics or news.

“I would like to see research in a university setting by dissecting master’s, undergrad and doctoral students,” Stein said. “It would be interesting to see how the contexts of their texts differ.”

Chatters said she would like to see studies done comparing cultural differences between countries or regions stereotyped as non-expressive or expressive.

“It would be very interesting to look at text differences between preteen brackets versus the 20-somethings, which still see themselves as young and hip,” she said.

Students can review “Symbolic Capital in a Virtual Heterosexual Market: Abbreviation and Insertion in Italian iTV SMS” for free online through the USF Libraries Web site in the journal Written Communication.