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Archive for the ‘decision-making’ Category

The Feminine Mystique is 50 years old; do you know where your equality is?

Here’s a hint: if you’re a woman living in America, it’s still pretty far out of reach. Because for as far as women have come in the ol’ US of A, the fact is that the state of affairs here–compared to most of the rest of the world, is pretty freaking abysmal. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in an op-ed entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled” in Sunday’s NYT,

Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s work or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total workforce was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers should be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the FMLA turned out to be the inadequate end.

Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.

As I likely do not need to tell you, the number of hours worked expected from the average worker during the average workweek has ticked steadily up in recent years, making the idea of two full-time employees trying to raise a child while maintaining each of their careers near impossible.  So someone steps down. Men are generally paid more than women–so guess which one tends to do the stepping down? And in fact, the more hours a man works, the more likely it is his female partner will quit her job. (And interestingly, married dads whose wives don’t work full time get paid more. Grrr.)

I have an extremely talented, very driven friend who works in New York, in a highly competitive, fast-evolving field. She is passionate about her work, and fiercely devoted to keeping her skills current. Her husband makes more money than her, and his job offers benefits. They’re thinking of having a baby. Her current boss won’t pay for leave–and, she’s been feeling pretty stagnant in her position. Up until recently, she’d been looking for a new job. But now, she’s thinking, well, maybe I’ll just take some time off when we have the baby. Child care is so expensive anyway. It’ll put her at a disadvantage later, but she doesn’t see much of a choice. She’s stopped looking for something new–despite the fact that she has not, as of yet, stopped taking the pill.

Sheryl Sandberg would call this a classic case of “leaning out”–taking oneself out of the game before it’s necessary in anticipation of work-life issues–and suggest that this friend of mine rethink her strategy, “lean in” instead. Even this friend of mine looks at is as a personal choice. But the thing is, in cases like this, the personal is, in fact, political.

Going back to Coontz’s piece:

The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their ‘decision-making process,’ it became clear that most had made the ‘choice’ to quit work only as a last resort–when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.

Every time we buy into that idea — that what’s going on with us has only to do with us — the movement stalls just a little bit more. It’s been fifty years since The Feminine Mystique… and twenty since the Family and Medical Leave Act. In order for things to change, we have to realize that what we are up against is bigger than the particular circumstances of our own lives.

Just as the miserable, Valium-popping suburban wives of Friedan’s day might have looked around at their gleaming linoleum and state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and said, but I chose this, we too can look at everything as a personal choice. Or we can step back, take a broader look, and realize that while, yes, perhaps we did “lean out”–taking a lesser job in a lesser place because our husband made the big bucks, or taking some time off work with the baby because it “made more sense” even though, in an ideal world, we’d like to work, too–a huge, invisible (and not so invisible) part of why we “decided” to lean out is systemic. It’s cultural and it’s structural and it’s policy-determined and it is, in fact, political.

The graphic that ran with Coontz’s story is a color-coded world map that shows which countries have paid maternity leave, by weeks provided. Those in the “none” category included Palau, Papau New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga, Suriname, and the United States. Aren’t we better than this?

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imagesThe Year of the Woman? Oy vey.

It’s a phrase that’s always struck me as ridiculous. It would be one thing to declare it the Year of the Short, Redheaded, Left-Handed Woman, or the Year of the Unmarried, Urban-dwelling Thirtysomething Woman, or the Year of the Woman Who Doesn’t Want to Have It All, but, I mean, half the people there are are women. Saying its our year is so broad as to be totally meaningless. And more than a tad condescending. (And, as any good writer knows, a mere three examples is all it takes to make a trend. Which is to say, as easy as it would be to round up three examples that prove it is indeed the year of the woman, it’d be equally simplistic to find three examples that demonstrate that, no, in fact, this was not such a good year for women.)

Interestingly, I got to thinking about this idea while reading Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which, upon first glance, would seem to be proclaiming 2012 as a the year of the woman. The cover story, “Hollywood Heroines,” is accompanied by a beautiful photo spread that spans 21 pages and features the big screen’s biggest ladystars of the year. It’s exactly the sort of thing you see, and expect the accompanying text to be proclaiming the dearth of quality female characters over, the representation equaled, the hierarchy overturned! (Citing three examples, natch.) Oh, actually, the deck did say that the hierarchy had been overturned. But, turns out, the piece, written by A.O. Scott, was right on the money, and its lessons stretch far beyond the reaches of tinsel town.

Scott cites some good examples of movies from this year that feature strong female characters, and/or pass the Bechel Test (the shockingly simple, yet equally, perhaps more, shockingly impossible-to-pass test comprised of three criterion: 1. the movie must have at least two named women characters; 2. they must talk to each other; 3. about something besides a man).

But the heart of the matter, I think, is this:

The rush to celebrate movies about women has a way of feeling both belated and disproportionate. Pieces of entertainment become public causes and punditical talking points, burdened with absurdly heavy expectations and outsize significance… It is a fact beyond dispute that the roles available to women in what movie-lovers nervously call the real world have expanded significantly in the last half-century, a fact at once celebrated and lamented in backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena like “Mad Men.” But the things that women do–the people they insist on being remain endlessly controversial. It takes very little for individual tastes and decisions to become urgent matters of public debate. It takes, basically, a magazine cover article. Women are breast-feeding their babies, pushing their children to practice violin, reading ’50 Shades of Grey’ on the subway, juggling career and child care, marrying late or not at all, falling behind or taking over the world. Stop the presses!

The problem is not that these issues are not important but rather that they are presented with a sensationalism that tends to undermine their ongoing and complicated significance. The behavior of a woman who appears on the public stage can be counted on to provoke a contentious referendum on the state of women in general. Is this good for women? Is she doing it wrong? This happened, in the last 12 months, to Sandra Fluke and Paula Broadwell, to Rihanna and Ann Romney, and, closer to the matter at hand, to Lena Dunham.

You did not really think I would get through a whole essay on gender and popular culture without mentioning her, did you? But the reception of ‘Girls,’ even more than the show itself–which is, to keep things in perspective,  a clever half-hour sitcom about a bunch of recent college graduates–is an interesting sign of our confused times. Dunham was mocked for her body, sneered at for her supposed nepotism, scolded for her inadequate commitment to diversity and lectured about the inappropriate things her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, does in bed. That much of the criticism came from Dunham’s peers is both evidence of a robust feminist discourse in the cultural blogosphere and a legacy of the under- and misrepresentation I have been talking about. Dunham was not quite allowed just to explore her own ideas and experiences. She was expected to get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.

And while the great majority of us are not Lena Dunham, I’d say that pressure and that judgment–and, more to the point, that expectation that we’re gonna be judged–is something we all deal with. Because no matter how many movies about women or girl heroes or headlines about secretaries of state or tiger mothers get paraded out on (to borrow Scott’s point) magazine covers, the message we take home has far less to do with the specific example itself than it does the analysis. What we absorb is this: Whatever you do, every choice you make, says everything about you, and, by God, you’re gonna be judged for it.

When we write about women and choices and the struggles we have determining what to do with our lives, I think we can’t overstate the lesson here. In order to make choices that are right for us, individually, we have to recognize how much of our pro and con lists are occupied by these pressures. The pressure to get it right, to represent, to set an example, to blaze a path. It’s interesting to wonder, if we could somehow apply a filter that’d shut those considerations down, how much easier our choices would be.

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Gift Boxes and BallSanta, make it stop!

My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of  Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys “R” Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it’s too late:

Final Hours:  30 percent Off!
Friends and Family!  Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute?  Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages.  Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour-40-percent-off sale.  I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself – and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping – should be immune to all this insanity.  And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books:  All these options, all these sales!  Get it together before it’s too late.  Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life?  As we’ve written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse.  Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, interwebs) and we’re headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis.  In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we’re Christmas shopping — or more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It’s not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one — or no sweater at all.  Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice’, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect.  And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don’t.  Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions.  Consider the newness of it all.  Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.  (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children).  Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything – with or without kids.  That freedom is what we’ve fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress.  There’s an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students:  Before they’re legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life’s path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it’s too late.

But anyway, back to me.  As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get Fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December.  And you know what?  Santa always comes.  I know this, truly I do.  And yet: with stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven’t bought one thing.  And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can’t help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me.  But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins.  That cute little pencil skirt?  You can never have too many.  Or, um, can you?   The Northface half-zip?  But wait, doesn’t he already have one?  So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all.  Just not quite sure of the color.  Good price, though.  Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?

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The other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link  to post by Ann Charlott Altstadt, a Swedish writer who suggests that when life gets us down, we’d sometimes be better off ditching the trip to the yoga studio or the psychologist and seeing a sociologist instead.

Funny, my friend said, but true.

Being as how my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I google-translated the piece and, given a few glitches, I think I caught the drift:  When you find yourself in some deep weeds, it’s not always you that needs fixing.  Rather than placating yourselves with feel-good measures, you ought to look toward the structures that are causing all the grief in the first place.

In other words: Ain’t me, babe.  It’s you.

If you can get past the cyber-translation, which is more than a little wacky in places, here’s a taste of what Altstadt had to say:

 … it was so liberating when psychologist and author Jenny Jäger Feldt … questioned the trendiest and most fashionable solution to all our social problems-mindfulness. For example, if 90 percent in a workplace feel stressed, it probably is not a personal problem, and how can it be? …. Can the solution be to stand and smell for 10 minutes on the fish stick pack you just opened for dinner?

If you read women’s magazine, you get an intravenous overdose of the millions of images on the hyper-aesthetic women sitting with eyes closed in yoga position. Women take care of themselves, treat themselves and enjoy in their home spa. The woman in perfect balance in the sofa corner with folklore blanket sipping a giant cup of soothing herbal tea is a genre of its own class with religious myths of the Middle Ages.

Hit the like button.  As my Swedish friend points out, so much of the rhetoric these days is about us taking responsibility for how we react and feel.  But what if our negative reactions are normal and warranted?

Indeed.  We’re led to believe that if we’re not happy, if we’re less than content, there’s something wrong with us.  But what if those negative feelings alert us to a structure in need of a fix?  When we’re unhappy/stressed/worried/angry/sad — pick one — it may well be the absolute proper response to a situation where, if we were calm and peaceful, THAT would be a sign of crazy. When we are stretched too thin, when we’re struggling with the second shift, when we’re overworked and underpaid, when we’re striving for that elusive thing called perfect, when we’re relentlessly undecided, maybe it’s not us that needs help — it’s the system.

The structures themselves.  Cue the sociologist.

And yet, we’re led to believe that if we would  just, you know, dig the moment with a steaming cup of herbal tea, all would be right with the world.

All of which reminds me of a crazy notion we wrote about a couple years ago: on-the-job happiness coaching:

According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black:

Happiness coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude—or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.

The coaching stuff seems silly, at least to me, but we see vestiges of this happiness-building stuff all the time:  workplace massage chairs.  Free sessions with a work-life coach.  Oatmeal-raisin cookies (my personal favorite) in the front office.  All of which might feel great at the time, but is it all a way to placate us, to keep us smiling so that we won’t notice that we’re overworked, that we deserve a raise, that your buddy in the next cube just got laid off, that the list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm, that we’re still making only seventy-seven cents to the guy‘s buck?  To keep us from questioning why we need the massage chairs in the first place?

To keep us thinking that if it’s happy and serene that we want, all we need do is stop and smell the chamomile?

Or, as Altstadt writes, the fish stick pack.  Anyway, she writes that she’s tried mindfulness and that all it does is stress her out.  Instead of sitting around thinking about reality, what she’d rather do is change it.

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I received a terrifying letter in the mail the other day: an invitation to a grade school reunion.  As in eighth grade.

Ew, right? The very thought sent chills up my spine.  Did I really want to revisit my adolescent self? Does anyone?

Now, I am old enough to know that every one of us, from the beauty queens to the brainiacs, goes through an awkward stage – unloved, uncool, unsure of ourselves. We’ve gone here before:

Whether we were beauty or brains, prom queen or wallflower, picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we thought others perceived us.

For me, the dork stage came on like a bull at the start of seventh grade, peaked precipitously in eighth and ninth grade, then gradually subsided by the time I started my junior year of high school when, coincidentally, I had gotten both contact lenses and my driver’s license.  Up until then, however, I was the shy, nerdy girl with thick glasses, bad hair and – insult to injury — hay fever.

I was never without a Kleenex.

Yep, I was truly tragic for a few years there, yet not tragic enough to be oblivious to the fact. So clearly, you can imagine my reluctance to willingly go back to the dark days in the form of cocktails and lunch at a chichi restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Would people I hadn’t seen since I turned 14 still remember me as the dorky kid?  Worse, would I suddenly start thinking of myself that way once again?

And then —  insert light bulb here — because I am a grown up and presumably have learned a thing or two about life along the way, I realized that maybe that sorry image of myself wasn’t about mean girls or pecking orders. It was really about me.  A prison of my own making.

Sometimes what keeps us from growing into ourselves, what holds us back in any number of ways and often keeps us undecided when it comes to figuring out what to do with our lives — and being happy with that decision once we’ve made it — is the fear of being judged.  But what it takes a while to realize is this:  often the almighty judge who had us quaking in our grade school plaid is made of straw.  The mythical mean girls we feared then – and those we fear now — may exist only in our own heads. And when it comes to all this leftover adolescent angst, women seem to have much thinner skins than men.

Is it the lingering legacy of adolescence? We’re held back by the fear that we are going to be judged when in fact, the only judge is the girl in the mirror.  Sure, we know this.  And yet: still we second-guess our decisions.  We search for approval.  We let ourselves be tyrannized by the shoulds. We worry about whether we will measure up.  Whether we fit in. We see ourselves as (we assume) others see us.

We end up, in fact, imprisoned by our own assumptions of what other folks will think – based on who we think those people actually are.  The funny thing is, what we’re doing is judging them.  It’s often unfair — and insulting, to boot. And we do it all the time.

Anyway, if all of the above sounds like a pep talk to get me to shell out the fifty-five bucks for that reunion, you’re right.  I’m still undecided as to whether I’m going to go. On the plus side, I am considerably better looking than I was at 14, I have a pretty cool job, and have finally mastered the art of conversation.  I also spend a good amount of money to have good hair.

But then again: I still have hay fever.  Don’t judge.

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I had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC.  The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.

I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years.  More about that below, but first, check this:

This year, there is once again a conversation about the superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO:
I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of woman­hood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.

Bingo.  That line about no “one right answer”?  That’s the point, isn’t it?  Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two.  Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there.  Why?  Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.

But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.

Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview.  On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided?  What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women?  The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all?  Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.

Together?  That’s all she had to say.  (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together?  Another story for another day.)

Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book.  And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.

What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers.  Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically.  And with all that change comes uncertainty.  Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow.  We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.  But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives.  For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.

What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back.  And yet:  there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps.  And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.

Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.

Sure, it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s scary.  But the good news is, we’re in it together.  Even the First Lady.

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I sometimes wonder whether our uber-connection has left us more than a little disconnected.

There’s no denying the ubiquity of iComm.  Long ago, we gave up talking in favor of typing.  (My land line rarely rings.  Does yours?) More recently, email conversations -– thanks to the seductive buzz of the smart phones in our pockets – have given way to pithy texts.

This is especially pronounced among teens, especially girls. (A friend with a teen-aged daughter once told me that their monthly phone bill, which itemized the texts, came in a box, rather than an envelope.)

According to a recent Pew Research Center Report presented at an education conference this week, texting is the dominant form of communication among teenagers – who blast out on average of 60 texts a day.  Some quick numbers from the report’s summary:

·  Older girls remain the most enthusiastic texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with 50 for boys the same age.

·  63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%).

We grown-ups aren’t all that different. That same Pew study reports that what we do most with our cells is text. An earlier Pew study found that adults who text send or receive an average of 41.5 messages a day. Among 18 – 24 year olds, that number soars to 109.5. That’s a lot of LOLs.

Before I go on, let me assure you that I’m as insanely Apple as the next geek. I have an iMac at work, an even newer iMac on my desk at home, and within reach: a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPad.  I’ve also got an iPod, but I’m not sure where. And yet, Apple cliché that I am, I can’t help wondering what we lose when our main form of communication is dependent upon the dexterity of our opposable thumbs.  Call it the curse of the small screen, and smaller keyboard?  Both render writing (or reading) more than a sentence or two a pain in the ass.

Can you go deep without going long?  And do our relationships suffer as a result?

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, suspects we may be sacrificing intimacy on the altar of instant connection. She agrees that texting is great for keeping in touch, but when texting becomes a replacement for conversation?  That’s where we enter the danger zone.  At a TED Talk earlier this year, she discussed ways in which our instant communication can in fact hide us from each other:

Across the generations, I see that people can’t get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right. But what might feel just right for that middle-aged executive can be a problem for an adolescent who needs to develop face-to-face relationships. An 18-year-old boy who uses texting for almost everything says to me wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

When I ask people “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” people say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right.

One more presentation of the iconic self?  Communication professor Charlotta Kratz, one of my colleagues at Santa Clara University, hears similar stuff from her students. “They prefer to text because they don’t want to talk to anyone,” she says. “Even talking on the phone is awkward.”  She recalled one student telling her that driving the 30 miles over to Santa Cruz with a group she didn’t know well for a class project was pure hell.

“We talked about generational differences and I told them that their tech non-savvy grandmas would make three new best friends on that car ride,” Kratz said.  “They agreed.”  Still, she says, “I’m not sure we lose anything necessarily [with texting].  I think it’s better to ask how things are different.  People are available 100 percent of the time now, for one thing.”

What’s interesting is that the 24/7 availability comes with its own rules that, SCU feminist scholar Laura Ellingson has found, often follow age-old gender scripts, at least when it comes to relationships: women are accused of being curt and mean if they send short texts, men are labeled girly if they are expressive. In a recent feminist methods class, Ellingson’s students investigated ways in which texting is gendered. “They found mostly that women send longer, more detailed messages with more emoticons and exclamation points and other ways of expressing emotion more explicitly than men did,” Ellingson said. “Both genders found that the medium is prone to misunderstandings and hurt feelings and unintended consequences.”

But what Ellingson found disconcerting about the class project was that two of the groups pursued themes around women’s over-analysis of texts for subtle meanings, essentially blaming the women for miscommunication, rather than the men who sent extremely brief texts:

“This is not a scientific study by any means, but it was illustrative of the point that in heterosexual relationships, it is still women who bear the majority of the responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationship; they are supposed to text as often as he wants to hear from them, but not too much so as not to be seen as “needy”.  They anxiously try to ferret out cryptic meanings in texts and then get labeled neurotic by the very men who expect them to competently interpret their meanings. The one thing that men are in charge of is the initial text following the exchange of cell phone numbers when first meeting or first becoming interested in each other. Women and men both said that it is up to the man to initiate first contact, and that women are seen as needy if they text first.

Whew. I have to wonder if all this angst could be eliminated by some good old fashioned facetime.  Or a multi-sentence conversation that doesn’t need emoticons. The point, I guess, is that life itself is messy, complicated. There are choices to be made and selves to find. And yet: as with all our digital diversions, we avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass i-teraction.  And so you have to ask: what is it that we’re after? And, what is it we’re avoiding?

I could go on. And would. But I just got a text.  Gotta send a reply.

Photo credit: Sierra Smith, statepress.com

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