Tech Support

Relationships in the digital age

Landing on Planet Millennial

Is there a new war between men and women?

Credit: Nic Snell
It certainly looks like it and if it's not a full-out war, then it's certainly more than a border skirmish. Granted, if literature (and human experience) are reliable indicators, true love and genuine intimacy have never been easy or in abundant supply. But is a healthy, happy, and sustainable relationship between a woman and a man even farther out of reach than ever before? It may well be.

Technology is clearly a factor in the mix. If it isn't the culprit, it's certainly a facilitator. For over a year I've been talking to young women and men about love, life, and relationship. Even when we talk in person, I'm aware that we aren't really alone—a cell or a smart phone is always somewhere nearby, pinging or beeping from the confines of a pocket or purse. Is it even possible to be one-on-one nowadays?

It's easy to visualize being together in the digital age. The couple sharing brunch at an outdoor café, both of them smiling down at their phones, their thumbs flying over their respective keyboards. The twenty-five year old software engineer who browses the smorgasbord of a dating site while he checks email and Facebook. He's the successful poster child for the Millennials with an enviable job who loves how technology makes it possible to stay in touch with far-flung friends.  Even so, he concedes that "technology makes introverts out of all of us, and online dating is the bar scene for introverts." Millennials at work answer phone calls with four open screens in front of them, one of which is usually Google Chat.

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Are these Millennials ever really present in the moment? Or better put, can anyone really be present in a world of constant interruption?

Most of the Millennials I talk to don't even know they're not present. (They prefer to call it multi-tasking, not distraction.) Similarly, they don't make a clear distinction between a communication and a conversation, and, even worse, some of them don't appreciate the difference.  By and large, they rarely talk on the phone, preferring to text or Google Chat. As a result, they're an impatient lot, used to being answered in the moment and when they're not, drama is usually in the offing. ("Is his/her phone dead, lost or is she/he just blowing me off?"  "What did I do to him/her that he/she isn't answering my texts?" "Dammit, I know he/she is reading my texts.") If you listen carefully, you'll hear that the ping-ping-ping sounds more like "me, me, me" than anything else.

As a medium, texting is superficially straightforward. At the same time, it's strangely complicated—a gateway to behaviors that only mimic what goes on between people who are face to face.  It's one-dimensional, like no spoken conversation, since it lacks aural clues.  Without tone, inflection, and rarely a grammatical context to clear up ambiguity, it's the perfect medium for misunderstanding. It's thoughtless in every sense, not to mention off-the-cuff and truly spontaneous—a staccato burst of letters without the need for diction, bereft of context and inhibition. It frees people up to be nastier than they might otherwise be—not to mention more "open" (or stupider), as anyone who's ever had a "sext" go public can attest.

Since there are no "missed" texts, there's a new, improvised set of rules for navigating the social landscape.  "Twenty-four hours is my limit," the twenty-six-year-old says, " If she hasn't answered by then, she's not going to."  "If a guy won't talk on the phone after two or three texts or emails, I'm out, " says a 29-year-old who exclusively dates online.  "That tells me he's not serious."

Texting and Google Chat are the preferred vehicles to avoid the hard conversations, the tough work of hurting another person, as well as taking responsibility for a relationship's failure . In comparison, the text makes the ancient "Dear John" letter look like an act of kindness. Both sexes avail themselves of the cyber kiss-off, whether it's the twenty-six-year-old woman who bails at the third date with a single line of text ("Ur nice but not rite for me") or the twenty-three year old trader who dumps his girlfriend of two years on Google Chat during the work day.

This behavior is so much the norm among Millennials and much younger people that it's been the subject of a Sprint ad hawking unlimited texting as well as a conference for teenagers sponsored by the Boston Public Health Commission on "healthy breakups" last summer.

The ping is also a siren's call of possibility. The text from the person you just met might signal real interest, or it just an empty moment in an uneventful day.  The Millennial universe has a fluidity of its own; it's easy to change plans, your mind, and even your love interests. The ping may be a harbinger of something better than what you have on the docket.

Many Millennials seem blissfully unaware that their capacity for intimacy might be evaporating, ping by ping—or, in the case of young men, by the helpings of video games and pornograph the Internet serves up on the daily. While they may not be present in the moment, they are most certainly caught up in it. As Nicholas Carr has observed, interactivity "gives us a powerful tool for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment." 

The next time you pay attention to that ping, you may want to summon up that image of the lab rat before you answer.  There may be more at stake than you realize, particularly if the brain scientists are to be believed.

But even if the Millennials are unwittingly stuck in a giant Skinner box, it's not the technology alone that's fueling the big disconnect between men and women.  "I could use an app or a Car Fax for dealing with dudes," one young woman observed.  "It really would make it easier."

 

 

 

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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