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Language Sciences 34 (2012) 13–27

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Language Sciences

journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/langsci

Gender and mobile phones in cross-national context

Naomi S. Baron ⇑, Elise M. Campbell

American University, Washington, DC 20016-8045, USA

article info abstract

Article history: The sociolinguistic literature has frequently noted differences in how males and females

Received 6 August 2010 communicate face-to-face and in writing, and more recently, through information and Received in revised form 16 June 2011 communication technologies. This article reports on gender patterns identified in a Accepted 23 June 2011 cross-national study of mobile phone use by university students in Sweden, the US, Italy, Available online 22 July 2011 Japan and Korea. Data were analyzed with respect to the purpose of communication, politeness issues, contact management and volume of use (along with user complaints


about dependency and reachability). Results indicated a number of gendered usage and Attitudes attitudinal patterns. However, in some cases, cultural variables may prove more explana- Cell phone tory than gender.

Culture Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Gender Mobile phone Communicating online and via mobile devices has come of age. As of 2010, there were an estimated 2.1 billion internet users and almost 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions (ITU, 2010), out of a world population of roughly 6.9 billion. In much of the world, males were initially more likely than females to utilize information and communication technologies (ICTs) (Ono and Zavodny, 2005), though in a growing number of countries, the gap is closing or has been closed (Rainie et al., 2000; World Internet Project, 2010).

Gender differences persist in the uses to which new media technologies are put. For example, more American females than males send email to strengthen ties with family and friends (Rainie et al., 2000); at least some American men use mobile phones to adjust personal schedules in their favor, leaving women to bear the brunt of household responsibilities (Chesley, 2005). A growing body of research documents differences in male versus female use of mobile telephony in a range of national and/or cultural contexts (e.g., Baron and Hård af Segerstad, 2010; Fortunati, 2009a; Fortunati and Manganelli, 2002; Fujimoto, 2005; Hijazi-Omari and Ribak, 2008; Hjorth, 2005; Lee, 2005; Lemish and Cohen, 2005; Skog, 2002).

The present study explores gender and mobile telephony by analyzing data from a cross-national investigation of mobile phone use by university students in Sweden, the US, Italy, Japan and Korea. Collecting data from multiple countries enables us to compare the role of gender versus culture (to the extent culture corresponds with nationhood) in use of and attitudes towards mobile telephony.

1. The gender question in language

The sociolinguistic literature has frequently reported that males and females tend to use language differently (e.g., Bergvall et al., 1996; Holmes, 1993, 1995; Holmes and Meyerhoff, 2003; James, 1996; Labov, 1991; Lakoff, 1975; Romaine, 2003; Tannen, 1994). Linguistic variation runs the gamut from who dominates the conversation to type of vocabulary, function of message, or use of politeness conventions. Many scholars (e.g., Aries, 1996; Dindia and Canary, 2006; James and Clarke, 1993; Tannen, 1993) rightly observe that differences in linguistic interaction sometimes have more to do with ⇑ Corresponding author.

E-mail address: nbaron@american.edu (N.S. Baron).

0388-0001/$ - see front matter Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2011.06.018 14 N.S. Baron, E.M. Campbell / Language Sciences 34 (2012) 13–27 the relationship between interlocutors (including how long they have known one another and their relative position of status and power) than with gender. In recent years, the field of language and gender research has developed in new post-structuralist directions that focus on discourse-levels of analysis and rethink the notion of gender itself (e.g., Bucholtz, 2003;

Cameron and Kulick, 2003). Nonetheless, correlations observed using more traditional approaches to gender and language are too strong to ignore, even where findings are traceable to socialization and circumstance.

Among the many linguistic domains we might consider, we will focus here on four: purpose of communication, politeness issues, contact management and volume of use. In some instances, previous studies of language and gender offer direct parallels to issues involved in mobile telephony. In other cases, we use the existing literature as a conceptual springboard for suggesting areas of inquiry that are relevant to mobile phones.

1.1. Purpose of communication

The language and gender literature reports that while women frequently use language to facilitate social interaction, men more commonly employ language for conveying information. This finding has been documented for both face-to-face spoken language (e.g., Cameron, 1998; Coates, 1993; Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003; Holmes, 1993; Romaine, 2003; Smith-Lovin and Robinson, 1992; Tannen, 1994) and written communication (e.g., Argamon et al., 2003; Biber, 1988; Biber et al., 1998;

Mulac and Lundell, 1994; Palander-Collin, 1999).

Studies of online communication reveal similar trends. Research in the US and the UK indicates that statistically, the content of female email and instant messaging (IM) is more social in nature, while male messages more often convey information (Boneva et al., 2001; Colley and Todd, 2002; Colley et al., 2004; Fox et al., 2007; Lee, 2003). Herring’s studies of US college students (2003) found that in online mixed-gender discussions, females showed more of an ‘aligned’ and supportive orientation towards their interlocutors than did males. In their analysis of blogs, Argamon et al. (2007) reported that male bloggers used more words referring to topics such as politics and business, while female topics commonly involved interpersonal conversation or relationships.

A gender dichotomy is also evident in text messages sent on mobile phones. Drawing data from adolescent and/or college student populations, studies of mobile phone use in Japan (Igarashi et al., 2005; Okuyama, 2009; Schiano et al., 2007), Korea (Yoon, 2003), Hong Kong (Lin, 2005) and Taiwan (Wei and Lo, 2006) indicate that females are more likely to use phones for social purposes, while males more commonly engage in information-seeking or planning. In the US, Lenhart et al. (2010) report that while 59% of teenage girls age 12–17 text several times daily to ‘just say hello and chat’, only 42% of boys do so.

Horstmanshof and Power (2005) found that the Australian males they studied tended to become disenchanted with texting because they were less willing (than females) to follow contemporary social texting conventions, such as immediately responding to messages or sending ‘good night’ messages to significant others. Yates (2006) reported that female messages in his corpus expressed more ‘support’ and ‘affection’ than did male messages.

Gender differences also exist in the ways IM and text messages are structured. Baron (2004) reported that IM conversational closings between female college students (FF) took twice as long (both in number of turns and time on the clock) as closings between males (MM). Similarly, in comparing FF and MM IM conversations, Lee (2003) found that female subjects used explicit openings and closing about 80% of the time, compared with males – who used them in less than 30% of messages. Females are generally more likely than males to use emoticons (or their equivalent, e.g., Japanese kaomoji, emoji or de-mo – Okuyama, 2009) and exclamation marks, both in computer-based communication (e.g., Baron, 2004; Colley and Todd, 2002; Colley et al., 2004; Herring, 2003; Lee, 2003; Waseleski, 2006; Witmer and Katzman, 1997) and in text messaging (e.g., Baron and Ling, in press; Miyake, 2010; Scott et al., 2009).

1.2. Politeness issues

Our second focus is on politeness. The language and gender literature includes discussion of such issues as paying compliments, interruptions, and use of profanity, off-color humor or insults. In studies of face-to-face speech, email, IM and texting, males are generally found to be less polite than females by one or more of these measures (e.g., Brown and Levinson, 1987; Colley et al., 2004; Herring, 2003; Holmes, 1988, 1991, 1995; Lee, 2003; Selnow, 1985; Smith-Lovin and Robinson, 1992; Tannen, 1994; Yates, 2006; Yates et al., 2005). While the present study did not address any of the above specific issues, we used previous findings as conceptual grounding for creating measures of politeness more directly relevant to our data.

1.3. Contact management

A third issue is what we called contact management: How do interlocutors choreograph their interactions with others?

Traditional forms of management range from dominating the conversational floor to ignoring an interlocutor or interrupting (also a politeness issue). Some of these behaviors are customarily associated with males (e.g., in face-to-face speech: Holmes, 1993; on listservs or newsgroups: Herring, 2010). However, the notion of contact management also encompasses other types of interaction between interlocutors, such as users delaying responding to a letter or choosing a written reply in lieu of a face-to-face meeting.

New media offer further venues for contact management. Users of ICTs can choose not to reply (or delay replying) to messages (though failure to respond promptly sometimes bears social consequences). Multitasking behavior (e.g., engaging in 15 N.S. Baron, E.M. Campbell / Language Sciences 34 (2012) 13–27 several IM or texting conversations simultaneously) is yet another form of contact management. Our own study examined choice of medium (voice or text) for communicating on a mobile phone and use of mobile phones to avoid face-to-face communication with potential interlocutors.

1.4. Volume of use

Our last consideration is volume of communication. The literature suggests multiple factors may be at issue here. Coates (1993), Hearn (1992) and Mulac (1989) report men speaking more than women in mixed-gender and/or face-to-face contexts, though James and Drakich (1993) argue that such results reflect unequal power relationships along with differential socialization. A French study of landline telephony (based on billing records and personal interviews) indicates that female subjects initiated more calls than males and spoke for nearly twice as long each month (Smoreda and Licoppe, 2000).

ICT research suggests that volume of online communication also correlates with gender. In online conferences and discussion forums, males have been shown to post longer and more frequent contributions, arguably in keeping with an unequal power relationship (Herring, 2003; Self and Meyer, 1991). However, in one-to-one contexts such as email and IM, females generate greater volume (Baron, 2004; Colley et al., 2004), arguably reflecting the social function of communication.

Mobile phone studies indicate that females send more and/or longer texts, or are more likely to use texting, than males.

These findings are robust across national contexts (e.g., Australia: Littlefield, 2004; Finland: Oksman and Turtiainen, 2004; Hong Kong: Lin, 2005; Italy: Herring and Zelenkauskaite, 2008; Japan: Boase and Kobayashi, 2008; Miyake, 2007;

Okuyama, 2009; Schiano et al., 2007; Scott et al., 2009; Norway: Ling, 2005; UK: Yates, 2006; US: Lenhart et al., 2010).

2. Cross-cultural/cross national study of ICTs

While gender is one relevant variable in considering patterns of mobile phone usage, culture is another. Culture can be viewed from multiple vantage points: surface manifestations (such as which hand you hold a fork in), behavioral patterns reflecting belief systems (e.g., how people bury their dead) or effects of culture on the way we think (e.g., Hall, 1976; Nisbett, 2003). Our interest here is to see if particular sorts of mobile phone use (or attitudes towards mobiles) correspond with differences in social praxis, thereby making culture a potential explanation of certain mobile usage patterns.

Cross-cultural studies are, of course, fraught with challenges (Baron, 2010; Haddon, 2005; Livingstone, 2003; Thomas et al., 2005). While the motivation for doing cross-national studies is commonly to look for cultural differences, a single nation-state may have multiple cultures (e.g., northern versus southern Italy). Similarly, a culture may extend across national boundaries (e.g., the Sami, who live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia). Other challenges are methodological: Subjects in one setting, for example, might be unfamiliar with doing online questionnaires.

A further issue in doing cross-cultural analysis is finding objective depictions of individual cultures and measures of cross-cultural differences. Cultural profiles of individual groups (e.g., Daun, 1996) acknowledge the sensitivities involved in attempting to portray a national character. Hofstede’s work (e.g., 1980) comparing dimensions of culture (e.g., masculinity versus femininity, small versus large power distance) was an important step towards objective analysis, but is not without critics (e.g., McSweeney, 2002).

When undertaking cross-national (and derivatively, cross-cultural) studies, it was rarely practical (or common practice) to create wide-ranging cultural profiles for each country in which data are collected. In the research presented below, the authors drew upon both relevant literature and discussions with social scientists in the countries studied to explore possible cultural dimensions of selected findings in the data.

Cross-national comparisons involving ICTs bring additional challenges as well. The amount of experience a society has had with a particular technology may help explain differences in user attitudes towards that technology. Similarly, variation in cost (and income) may be the actual source of what, on the surface, might appear to be cultural distinctions.

3. Rationale for present study

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