Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Emotions, social networking, and gender

    Our interpersonal expressions of emotion are shaped by biology and by our culture.  What is considered appropriate for a woman to say is not the same as what is considered appropriate for a man to say, for example, when the topic concerns one’s emotions.  Evolutionary biology had a great deal of impact on why women would be more comfortable with talking about and expressing emotions.  They were responsible for keeping track of kin relations, and the rearing of children.  However, culture also shapes and maintains how each gender interacts with their peers. 
    Social norms follow certain “display rules”.  This term was first introduced by Ekman and Friesen.  In their work, they defined three types of display rules - the tendency to express more positive emotions, the tendency to mitigate negative emotions, and the act of replacing one emotion with another.  An example of replacement may be smiling in a culture where negative emotion expression is not considered appropriate.
    Studies have also shown that women are generally higher in empathy than men.  Of course, as with any advantage, this can be a double sided sword.  This increased level of empathy may be the very thing that causes detrimental effects when combined with social networking and display rules.  If we only see and hear about those positive aspects of another’s life, we tend to discount the amount of negative emotions that other people feel.  So much so, in fact, that we then become more lonely and experience greater feelings of isolation over time (“Misery Loves Company”, Jordan et al.).  While this has not yet been directly tested in online communication, there is evidence exists that suggests that similar effects occur when “tweenage” girls go online (Nass & Pea, 2011).  A correlation was discovered that higher levels of using social networking are associated with lower levels of self-esteem.
    The role of social networking in shaping culture has yet to be fully determined, but we can see that language constrained to an online format is different than how we naturally speak.  From abbreviations to emoticons, new slang to meme references, language is changing everyday at an accelerated rate, but display rules place certain constraints on the way we interact.  This in turn shapes culture in a cyclical manner.  With several iterations, we may find that these display rules are magnified, exaggerated, or completely replaced by new norms.
    What we have to be constantly aware of is the insidious effects of long-term use, especially for those that are higher in empathy.  One solution may be the paring down of one’s contact list to only include those that we truly care for, close friends and family members.  When our list only consists of those individuals, we can experience true sympathetic joy at their accomplishments, instead of jealousy, as can happen with non-close acquaintances.  Another intervention might be realizing that other people have unhappy moments, same as us, but that they would never admit to that through social networking.  Realizing that this medium is a pair of rose-colored glasses may be the way to defy any blows to one’s self-esteem and to remind us of our common humanity.