Exams, Language, and Gender

Posted: November 9, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

I have gotten the results of my exams. I passed the exam on the history of rhetorical theory. I passed the exam on Scientific and Technical Communication. I have been asked to take a different specialty exam, as the list I had wasn’t finalized in time, which meant I was not as prepared as I was supposed to be.

In other words: I failed the third exam. And I deserved to. I took 6 months to study the other two, and six WEEKS to study the third (while still studying the other two). So I’m taking a step back, getting to know my shit a bit better, and then taking another swing at it. It’s a hurt to the confidence, but I’m trying to look at it as a story I can tell some day to my students when they panic about their exams (as my adviser did for me).

Anyway, I wanted to talk about an article. “Virtual Gender Identity: The Linguistic Assimilation to Gendered Avatars in Computer-Mediated Communication” by Nicholas A. Palomares and Eun-Ju Lee. This article is basically looking at whether gender-matched avatars lead to more gender-typical language use (they say it does).One important thing is that Palomares and Lee discredit the idea that women use more emotional language than men. While there are studies supporting it, they tell us that there are also studies that show that men use emotional language more than women, and studies that show they use emotional language equally across genders (7). So, in other words, there’s no way to be sure. No confirmation.

What does matter is that gender has something to do with the way people interact. They write that “if people interact devoid of a gender distinction, then one’s gender is irrelevant and gender-based language is unlikely to emerge; but if a gender categorization is germane, then gender identity is applicable to one’s self-construal, and people will behave according to the activated prototypical norms” (7). So if the interaction is somewhere that gender CAN play a role, it tends to; people tend to act towards the gender ‘norms’; but if there isn’t a way for gender to play a role, it gets ignored.

I thought it was pretty obvious that people prefer avatars that closely resemble themselves, particularly in regards to gender (9), but was surprised to find out that “Women tend to be more responsive to gender salience than men are … and they tend to identify with their gender more strongly than men do … In fact, men were less likely than women to take a gendered avatar into account when inferring an anonymous partner’s gender” (9). Women apparently care more about gender than men do, at least in terms of establishing identity relationships.

Palomares and Lee tell us that a  “gender matched avatar increases the likelihood of gender-typical language use, whereas gender-mismatched avatars promote counter-typical language” (15). So people are naturally inclined to perform as their own gender when the avatar matches that gender than they are when it doesn’t. This idea of performative gender is, I think very important. When we are told that “men are capable of performning femininity communicatively when such acts are intentional or explicitly researcher induced, but they are less likely to do so when the trigger is a relatively subtle visual cue such as an avatat” (15), we can see how performative it is. When consciously trying, it’s not hard to perform as a gender other than the one we self-identify as. As long as we are trying to perform as a member of one gender, we linguistically assimilate to that gender (15).

The article suggests that “gender-based language use in CMC is susceptible to the influences of arbitrarily assigned gendered avatars that represent oneself, especially for women” (18), though I think there is more being shown here than just that. I think this article is demonstrating that gender IS a performance, and that performance is unconscious most of the time; only when actively instructed to perform differently do people engage in gender-specific language that is different from their natural tendencies; otherwise, there seems to be an active performance of the false-gender identity as BEING false. That is, when a man has a female avatar, he tends to perform the fact that he is not in fact a woman, unless he is intentionally trying to perform as though he is. Ditto for women. In fact, it may be harder for women to engage in false gender performance, but I don’t think there’s enough information to claim that definitively.

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