It is no wonder that e-mail usage is skyrocketing. E-mail has quite a number of advantages. Compared to conventional letter-writing, e-mail is fast and convenient; in fact, postal mail is referred to as "snail mail" by frequent e-mail users. An e-mail message usually takes only a few minutes to be transmitted to the recipient's mailbox, even if the recipient is halfway around the country or even the world. E-mail can be sent and responded to in an asynchronous manner, to the convenience of both the sender and the receiver. And since e-mail is already in digital format, it is easy to save, copy, and/or forward to others, creating simple mailing lists.
Yet it seems that not everyone is equally enamored with this new technology. Specifically, men and women do not seem to respond to e-mail in the same way. In general, men seem to embrace e-mail usage and culture in a much more comprehensive way, while women use e-mail for fewer, more stringent communications needs. What accounts for these differences in attitudes and usage patterns?
I will explain these differences in two ways. First, I believe these differences can be explained by taking communications theory and gender differences in conventional communications media and applying them to the specific domain of e-mail communications. The theories I believe have direct relevance to answering this question are as follows: the use of "report-talk" versus "rapport-talk"; conversation as a means to an end versus as an end in itself; turn-taking versus cooperative overlap; dominating a conversation through the controlling technique of silence; and the prevailing attitudes of assigning gender to technology.
Additionally, anecdotal evidence I have gathered in informal conversations suggests further areas of research to explain the differences of e-mail usage. These ideas have not been explicitly stated in the research, but they expand on the concepts found in the research. They suggest alternate approaches to understand why women and men use e-mail differently, and I will explain these ideas and how they apply to the problem.
Though every person is unique, there seems to be a general trend that women and men use e-mail in different ways to communicate. Through the theories which are grounded in both existing communications and gender theory as well as my own speculations, I will explain in this paper these differences in e-mail usage.
For most women, the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport: a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships.... For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. This is done by exhibiting knowledge and skill.... (Tannen, 1990, p. 77)In other words, women talk to build rapport and men talk to impart knowledge. Women desire rapport because they seek to make networks of relationships with other people. For them, it is important to emphasize sameness and equality with their peers with whom they are establishing rapport. However, for men, the world is seen as a hierarchy, with people in a higher or lower status position with respect to the man. Exhibiting knowledge and skill is necessary to determine relative status.
But how does this theory apply to determining gender usage differences in e-mail? E-mail is a medium which is very efficient at transmitting knowledge and information. Given that this is the case, it should then come as no surprise that men respond positively to using e-mail as a natural medium through which to "talk," since they can easily exchange information to determine hierarchical status. On the other hand, e-mail is not able to convey emotional tone easily. (This is changing, as people gradually adapt the technology to convey emotional content through usage of "smileys", "emoticons" and other conventions. See, for example, "Useful Internet Emoticons" at http://www.randomhouse.com/features/davebarry/emoticon.html.) Bateson, as cited by Tannen (1990), refers to the emotional content and the context of a message as the "metamessage" (p. 32). E-mail does not transmit metamessages easily, stripping away all but the literal message. What this means is that women who attempt to use e-mail to converse are likely to be frustrated by the medium's inability to effectively transmit metamessages and paralinguistic hints which are necessary to establishing feelings of rapport.
This theory also supports another observed trend: women do use e-mail to exchange factual information, such as a woman telling a family member what time she is arriving at the airport and from which gate to come pick her up. In this case, the woman is not using e-mail for rapport-talk, and thus the poor metamessage capacity of an e-mail channel is not a hindrance in her goal of conveying unemotional, factual information. However, such information exchange would not be considered "talk" by the woman; it does nothing to further her goal of building rapport with her conversation partner.
This difference between rapport-talk and report-talk is a very significant difference between women's and men's conversation preferences. Traces of this difference can be seen in many of the other theories which are described below.
Another woman's husband delivered a tape to her with great satisfaction and pride. "This is a good conversation," he announced, "because it's not just him and me shooting the breeze, like 'Hi, how are you? I saw a good movie the other day,' and stuff. It's a problem-solving task. Each line is meaningful." When the woman listened to the tape, she heard her husband and his friend trying to solve a computer problem. Everything they said was technical and impersonal. Not only did she not consider it "a good conversation," she didn't really regard it as a conversation at all. His idea of a good conversation was one with impersonal, factual, task-focused content. Hers was one with personal content. (Tannen, 1990, p. 103)Clearly, the husband in this example felt that his and his friend's problem-oriented talk made for a good conversation. Given this belief, it is not hard to imagine these two friends solving their computer problem via an e-mail exchange and feeling that the exchange was also a "good conversation." The men's task-driven discourse plays very well to e-mail's strength in conveying factual information, thus supporting men's acceptance of e-mail usage, while women's use of conversation as an end in itself exposes e-mail's difficulty in conveying metamessage information.
On the other hand, many women prefer a conversation style with frequent cooperative overlap, to show support for the speaker and to help jointly develop the conversation (Coates, 1988; Tannen, 1990). Note that this overlap is different from an interruption. Interruptions are uncooperative overlaps; they "have the potential to disrupt turns at talk, disorganize the ongoing construction of conversational topics, and violate the current speaker's right to be engaged in speaking" (West and Zimmerman, 1983, p. 105). Cooperative overlap, on the other hand, indicates agreement, sameness, commonality, and rapport between the conversation partners.
However, given e-mail's asynchronous nature, it is clearly difficult to overlap (cooperatively or not) the speaker during a conversation. Instead, the best that can be done is only an approximation. When responding to a particular portion of an e-mail message, a common practice is to quote that portion and then respond directly below it. Ebben (1994) suggests that through this practice, a more synchronous feel can be simulated:
This convention of participants citing the previous contributor's specific words and inserting their own words in response serves to create, in a sense, a "conversation" among the participants. By contextualizing new remarks beside previously stated remarks, the practice restructures the flow of computer-mediated "talk" from a series of "monologues" to a more complex, and interconnected stream of "dialogue." (p. 138)Despite this convention, overlap is still practically impossible to achieve. Instead, Ebben goes on to suggest that this simulated synchronicity "is most closely adhered to when participants are in disagreement with each other" (p. 141). Thus women wanting to format an e-mail message that allows them to cooperatively overlap will be frustrated, but men looking for a formatting that allows them to argumentatively challenge an e-mail message can simply using this interweaving strategy. Once again, the medium lends itself more naturally to men's communications preferences but not to women's preferences.
This strategy of silence can also be implemented in e-mail conversations. Application of such inexpressiveness can range from deft cut-and-pasting in order to ignore certain statements or topics, to completely ignoring a message by not responding at all. This is not to suggest that only men can use this tactic; women too can cut-and-paste and ignore e-mail messages. However, since the e-mail medium can easily be used in this manner to achieve inexpressiveness, men may be able to use it more naturally and thus feel more at ease with the medium overall. Meanwhile, women may resist using these ignoring techniques precisely for the feel of dominance it lends over the conversation, and thus that provides another reason to women to feel that e-mail is unnatural for conversations.
Nowadays, female computer programmers and are still the exception; it is not uncommon for a software design team to be composed entirely of males. Given this enormous slant towards male attitudes and experiences in the design and production phases of computer products, feminist theory argues that it clearly follows that women would have difficulty feeling comfortable with such products. For example, feminist theory states that new technology is designed to suit the needs of those in power, which would be men. Ebben (1994) goes on to say that computer-mediated communication "may similarly embody technological design choices which may be antithetical to women's conversational preferences" (p. 214). In other words, women may respond negatively to e-mail usage as a general communications medium because they subconsciously do not feel a connection to the technology. The technology was not designed by women, it does not take into account women's values, and therefore it is no surprise that women do not feel their internal needs are met by the technology. On the other hand, men may subconsciously feel an attachment and a validation from the technology, which was designed by other men, for other men, and with men's values in mind.
What this means in terms of gender preferences for e-mail usage is related to the earlier discussion of paralinguistic cues and metamessages. According to Ebben (1994), citing Mehrabian, "93 percent of a communicator's intent [is] conveyed by paralinguistic cues" (p. 24). Since digital communications are so malleable, they can be transformed into many different formats which, though they preserve the literal message, are likely to distort or filter out any paralinguistic cues, which are not usually carried by the literal message itself. For example, the sender of a message may be using an e-mail agent with a certain font that looks very serious, but the recipient's e-mail agent might display the message in a large, informal-looking typeface.
This malleability is unique to digital communications. For other traditional forms of communication, there is some level of physical traces in the message which is difficult to alter. Conventional letters are a perfect example; when the recipient receives a letter, it is guaranteed that the letter itself is physically the same letter the sender wrote on, folded, and placed in the envelope. Even telephone communications embody a unique aspect of the sender: the sender's voice, though digitized and transmitted as pure information, is reconstructed with enough accuracy and fidelity that it is generally considered to be truly the speaker's voice. These unique physical traces are where paralinguistic cues are usually transmitted: the style of handwriting, the choice of paper and color of ink, the tone and speed of voice, etc.
But e-mail and other forms of pure digital communications can not claim to have this physical and unique trace of the sender in what the recipient receives. Without this guarantee, paralinguistic cues can not be assuredly sent, and this impacts women who rely on their use to have an emotionally-fulfilling conversation. Men may not be as impacted if they rely more on the literal message itself. For this reason, the malleability of digital communications leads to a discomfort and rejection of the use of e-mail for women's conversational needs.
This is illustrated by the following quote:
In addition to conveying less of the richness of face-to-face communication, computer-mediated communication is also said to lead to mechanomorphism, the perception of the computer-mediated communication partner as machine-like. Shamp (1989) found that perceptions of computer-mediated communication partners were more similar to perceptions of the computer than were perceptions of a person with whom the individual communicated through media other than the computer. These results suggest that the lack of paralinguistic cues in online communication may play an influential role in users' perceptions of online communication partners as being more machine-like than human. (Ebben, 1994, p. 25)This "disinhibition" is further described by Gackenbach, as quoted by Turner (1998): "Even if two parties know each other, such as in a discussion via corporate e-mail, Gackenbach says that there is a sense of emotional anonymity brought on by the lack of nonverbal communication, cues that would be a part of a normal conversation. 'There are many examples in which we know something intellectually but still behave based on our emotions. This is just one of them'" (p. B4).
What can happen is the user finds the recipient emotionally anonymous because of the introduction of the computer interface. The user can then confuse the computer with the actual human recipient of the e-mail exchange. This is similar to a famous hypotheses posited by the famous computer scientist Alan Turing, known as the Turing Test for intelligence. This test is as follows: suppose a person is connected via a terminal to either a computer or another human. The person is allowed to type questions to attempt to determine if the entity on the other side of the connection is a computer or a human. If the interrogator cannot tell the two apart, then it can be said that the computer is intelligent (Turing, 1950).
Thus, given the layer of anonymity and the tendency for people to mechanomorphise the computer in e-mail exchanges, a subconscious and emotional uncertainty for the true identity of the e-mail recipient is developed. As mentioned above, the lack of paralinguistic cues is an important cause of this tendency. Because women are generally more attuned to such paralinguistic cues, they would be more sensitive to the absence of such cues from this communications medium. The effects of disinhibition and mechanomorphism would then be more pronounced on women than men. Women may prefer the emotional certainty of knowing who their communication partners are, and this would mean relying on another, less anonymous, means of communication.
Clearly, it takes time and effort to find paper, write a letter, get an envelope and a stamp, assemble the letter, and take the letter to a mailbox or to the post office. The recipient is fully aware of the amount of effort involved in sending a physical letter, and for this reason he or she values the letter at some level. E-mail, on the other hand, is generally quite a bit easier to send. A person can sit down in front of any computer with a network connection, start up an e-mail agent, and type away. When the person is finished, he or she clicks on a button marked "send" or invokes the sending in some other way, and usually without any more effort on the user's part, the e-mail message is sent. Typically, the user is not charged any extra money for sending the message (above that which he or she spends for the network connection itself, and even that cost is often absorbed by the company for which the user works or the university the user attends).
This simplicity and convenience certainly may be attractive to those who dislike the overhead of physical letter writing; this may be conducive to allow such people to communicate more regularly than not at all if they did not have access to such an inexpensive medium. However, it is precisely this ease that may lend people to not value e-mail communications as much as physical letters. Telephone conversations, too, involve money, and they are usually much more expensive than sending e-mail. For this reason, they too are often valued more highly than e-mail messages (though their synchronous nature also provides an important different feature than e-mail). A recent article in the UCLA student newspaper also supports this differing valuation of e-mail versus physical letters: "E-mail can be quicker, easier and cheaper.... For many, however, true emotion is stuffed inside an envelope in the form of a hand-written letter. 'When writing a letter, you put more into it. You actually address the person.... It's more personal.'" (Shah, 1999).
The very features of e-mail which are valorized can be held against it as a devalued communications medium. This would be primarily true with women, since it is masculine and not feminine values that e-mail's advantages maximize, as discussed previously. For this reason, women may prefer not to use e-mail for their personal correspondence.
Women and men are different, and this includes their preferences for using e-mail for personal correspondence. With the ideas presented in this paper to explain this difference in attitude, perhaps both women's and men's preferences can be understood and accommodated to foster smoother conversations in e-mail or other media.
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