The Internet Talks Like a Woman

Photo: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Long before “mansplaining” became a cliché, linguists observed that men tended to dominate public conversations. They hogged the floor, asserted more opinions, and interrupted more frequently than women. One study from 1975 found, for instance, that men were responsible for 96 percent of all interruptions in conversations with women. In the early '90s, some scholars hoped that the internet, with its promise of anonymity, would offer women more equal footing. But the fantasy proved short-lived. When linguists like Susan C. Herring at the University of Indiana looked at online discussion groups, they discovered the same old pattern. Despite anonymity, women posted less than men, received fewer responses when they did post, and struggled to influence the topic of conversation. Men were also more antagonistic (and worse, downright harassing), relishing the absence of rules, while women were more polite and considerate of others. Gender still influenced the way people wrote online. 

As technology evolved, gender manifested itself not just in participation patterns, but also in writing styles. Women tended to use more emoticons, exclamation points, and lexical features like homophones, complex capitalization, phonetic spellings, repetition, and extra letters. These quirks — known (sometimes derisively) as Netspeak —emerged as users of text and instant messages began to demand from writing the nimbleness of speech, even though old-fashioned writing lacked the paralinguistic elements, like tone and body language, that shaped the meaning of our spoken words. And so instead of a level playing field, the web proved to be a petri dish for linguistic theories about gender. When linguists analyzed IM conversations in 2006, they found that women’s messages were more expressive than men’s. A 2009 analysis of Italian text messages found similarly that women, as compared to men, had crafted “a highly expressive style.” 

The advent of the smartphone, with all the extra opportunities it offers for constant, compressed communication, may have exacerbated these trends. Witness, for instance, the recent New York Times article: “Should Grown Men Use Emoji?” The headline suggested that not only do emoji characters seem girly to your average guy, but also that they tempt him. Despite the boys’-club atmosphere that often seems to permeate the internet, so much of what seems fun today about online writing is, in fact, thanks to women. 

Many of these differences mirror ones that already exist IRL. In the 1980s, Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown, studied the differences between male and female communication strategies and observed what she called “report style” versus “rapport style.” Men generally used conversation to exhibit knowledge, coordinate activities, and convey concrete information, while women used conversation to build and maintain relationships. “For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds the relationship together,” Tannen says. Not surprisingly, women also write longer messages than men in private communications, like texting, and exchange messages at a higher volume.

There’s a tendency to interpret stylistic flourishes in Netspeak as signs of emotionality — for instance, an emoji to indicate happiness or sadness — but their actual use is usually more sophisticated: They clarify the intention of the writing they accompany, like tone in spoken conversation. One study, for instance, found that women most frequently used smiley faces to indicate not that they were happy, but that they were being humorous (e.g., “That was dumb of me :)”). “It’s a question of style,” says Naomi S. Baron, the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Language in a Digital World. “Sometimes we choose to do things to have a certain style to them. That takes an effort. Statistically, women are more likely to make the effort than men.”

One sign of that style’s acceptance is how quickly its conventions have become standard. Nowadays, “it’s almost obligatory to use an exclamation point,” says Susan Herring — but more owing to the fear of being seen as unfriendly than an actual outpouring of friendliness. Tannen has written that much of women’s stylistic embellishment “does not signal literal enthusiasm, but rather is necessary to avoid the impression of negativity or apathy.” One of Tannen’s students once showed some peers an exchange between two women, where one answered the other with short one- or two-word answers ending in a period. Six of the seven female students said the respondent was angry. All five male students said the respondent was probably busy or just indifferent.

But men are conscious of these subtleties, too — in some situations more than others. Men are more likely to spruce up their writing when they converse with women, a finding that surprised some linguists because, in spoken public conversations, women typically use more standardized language. In 2000, for instance, a study found that male use of emoticons soared when mostly male discussion groups were compared to gender-balanced discussion groups. In the mixed-gender groups, men and women used emoticons almost equally, confounding the expectations of the study’s author, Alecia Wolf. “Rather than the females adopting the offline male standard of less emotional expression, the opposite occurs: both males and females display an increase in emoticon use,” she wrote. Although not always creatively: In the Times article about men and emoji, a woman complained about men’s frequent flirtatious use of the winking face with its tongue sticking out: “It seems like that’s the go-to if a guy can’t come up with something else to say.” Meanwhile, in focus groups with teenagers, Baron discovered that the boys were more willing to experiment with style when texting with women — or, as one teenage boy put it, to "play the game." In other words, far from enabling total anonymity, the internet may have actually helped make people more aware of gender differences.