Thursday, May 23, 2013

Random Rant: The Friend Zone, One More Perspective in the Context of Gender Differences

I know this subject has been beaten to death by every post-modern man hoping to open someone's eyes to how strange people who complain about being "friend zoned" should seem, so I tend to ignore it in the course of my various ramblings. However, while I was perusing facebook a few days ago I saw that several of my friends had shared a blog post about the friend zone from a woman's perspective and it got me thinking.

See only a couple years ago I was the sort of guy who would complain about being "put in the friend zone" by women, and I did so, often. I would come to stop making those complaints shortly after I had turned eighteen, but I never thought about why that was, or why I had been making those complaints in the first place. The blog post linked above brought those questions to the forefront of my mind, and I'll put the potential answers I found here, just in case I ever get "friend zoned" again and need a rude awakening. I will say I don't speak for everyone in my gender with this rant, just for myself and my experiences.

I'm only able to sit up on a high horse judging men who complain about the friend zone because I've already done my time in that mindset. I don't remember the first time I thought of friendship between a man and a woman as a function of a relationship some time in the future, but I do remember one of the first times I was introduced to gender differences. Because that's the answer I found while thinking back on my experiences with cross-gender friendships, it's all about how our culture perceives gender differences.

I was a happy-go-lucky seven year old at my friends birthday party, who for the sake of not having to use pronouns for this entire example I'll call Aya. Aya and I had been friends since we were two, we'd spent years running through the woods around her house, playing games like hide and seek, tag, and those role-playing games kids play. Both boys and girls had been invited to the party, and everything was going great for me, until I went to see the birthday girl.

I found her in the basement with some of her friends, playing an elaborate game of house. There was even a cardboard facade representing the front of the house, with doors and windows and everything. I had played house tons of times at that age, and proceeded to walk through the door to join in the fun, only to be rebuffed by one of her friends. "No boys allowed." was the only explanation I received. It was only then that I realized all the people I could see through the cardboard windows were girls.

Being a seven year old child I was perplexed by this turn of events, and made something of a scene until Aya came to the door to give me the same reply. After that my memories get a bit foggy, but I do recall being driven home in tears, sad and frustrated by what had up until that point been a non-issue between Aya and I.

This was one of the first times I was introduced to gender differences, but it wouldn't be the last, and over the years those differences would become more pronounced. My classmates and I would stop being "children" and start becoming "boys" and "girls". The older I grew the more differences I noticed between male and female classmates. They dressed differently, engaged in different activities, played with different toys, talked with different dialects, they were different. From all through elementary school boys and girls in my school started interacting less and less. Cliques would form not just between people with separate interests, but separate genders as well. After second grade almost every birthday party I went to and every birthday party I had consisted entirely of boys. This would continue into middle school, at which point the genders would suddenly crash back together. I can't say for certain whether the sudden intermingling of genders at that time, as twelve year old me couldn't have cared less about psychology and sociology if he'd tried, but I can theorize as to why relationships began to form soon after between the two genders.

See, at a young age, human beings don't know or care about the feelings of the people around them, or where they fit into our grand social web. They don't have the tools required to perceive the culture that surrounds them, or empathize fully with other people until around the age of ten. After that point though, culture starts making itself known, and these days it has a lot of ways to do so. The world is full of media these days, from music to the news, movies to games, books to the internet, all within the reach of a child that age, and most of it broadcasting the same messages. One of those messages is: women and men aren't friends. I know, huge generalization, so allow me to be more specific.

 When I was a kid I did lots of normative things kids my age tend to do, and a few things not so normative. I went to see movies, I watched sitcoms, I read fantasy novels appropriate for my reading level, and all these stimuli told me one thing: women and men aren't friends, or if they are it's only an intermediary step that leads to future romantic encounters. Think about it, how often in upbeat movies do you see the movie end without a new couple having formed between a differently gendered dyad? How many sitcoms have their protagonists stay "just friends" with the opposite gender from the first to last episode? How many fantasy series see the protagonist never in a relationship?  In fact, many of these forms of media seem to encourage coupling between friends, citing the benefits of having known them for some time already. And in the case of sitcoms, dramas, and other such television programs where romance is prevalent, these couplings are viewed as the protagonists "one shot." If they succeed, the relationship goes well (or crumbles only to start up again later if they get more seasons), and if they fail things are horrendously awkward and the friendship they once had is in danger of being lost forever.

My point being, these forms of media teach children social scripts for how relationships between men and women should  work. And the people most easily influenced by these social scripts are children in their teens (ages 11-19). In a perfect world, people would apply these scripts to reality, find them lacking, and try to learn a more pragmatic set of romantic scripts, but this world is far from perfect.

After all, sometimes that scenario does play out in reality, and potentially those who see it do so would think that their failure to make a successful relationship happen is failure on their part, not on that of the script they used. Also, while culture may have the most sway on teens, once people advance out of that age bracket culture doesn't suddenly stop influencing them. It influences all of us, no matter our age, whether we want it to or not. Through these traps people may continue on with this mistaken belief for years, leading to a generation of 20-somethings complaining to their friends about how they were friend zoned by a woman they're romantically attracted to.

I didn't say all that to excuse the behavior of men (and women, I focused primarily on men as that's where my experience lies, but I'm betting this happens to women too) who complain of being friend zoned. Personally I think such a narrow relationship paradigm puts strain on gender relations that could be one of the causes of some of the worst gender relations available to us. I'm saying that culture and the media at large isn't helping to make friend-zoning any less viable of a belief structure. Much like people in the 1950's many people who complain of the friend zone today are victims of their times, and if we as a country are very lucky, maybe sixty years from now our grandchildren will look back on romantic interactions like those and wonder how such lunacy could have ever been possible.

My question for this one is simple: What is your opinion about the concept of the friend zone? And what past experiences, both personal and cultural, might have lead you to think that way? Think about it future me, you'll have more experience than I do.

PS: I realize at the end of this rant that I could do a whole other rant on how historical gender politics affect how the friend zone presents itself in modern society and why it does so, maybe some other time. The possibility of their being other reasons didn't slip my mind.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Random Rant: Communication and the Internet

I figure I'll record my opinions on communicating via the internet in 2013 here. Granted, to my future self this may seem antiquated to someone who can talk to people holo-projector style a-la DS9 (or any of the other Star Trek iterations I may have seen by that point), but it should be interesting all the same.

Like all forms of communication it has its pros and cons, which for lack of a better format I shall list in numerical format:

1) You can be anyone you want to be

This is both a pro and a con. On the positive side there are many people, especially teens/young adults who can try out personae different than the ones they may show their friends and family out in a retribution free environment that is completely separate from the foibles of ones past (ie. "Hey, remember that time you bit Katie Whatserface? That sure was crazy.") Much like college this can be a very freeing experience for some, to go to a place where no one knows who you were so you can be anyone you want to be, and that kind of release can be very cathartic indeed.

 It also protects one from more...lets say direct forms of redress for negative remarks. Take online gaming for example, when I play League of Legends (or LoL for short) and I've had a bad day I tend to be a bit peeved, and by a bit peeved I mean that if someone gets in my face about not laning properly their screen will fill with asterisks and words that somehow make it past the censor (Really riot? You censor "fuck" but not "fucked"?). If I were to make such comments to the face of the person involved it would likely end in a fist fight, by which I mean their fist would fight my face with the maximum degree of success.

This leads me to the negative part. After all, on the internet you can be anyone you want to be, but then again, on the internet you can be anyone you want to be. If you want to be a condescending jerk, whose to stop you? If you want to visit fanficiton sights, find the most hopeful new writer you can, and tear them a very eloquent new one, how will they seek redress (other than finding a moderator to ban the IP, but that only directs the problem somewhere else)? And yes, if someone answers your mildly negative comment on LoL with a series of much more negative comments (working on not playing LoL angry), how will retribution be meted to the offender?

 This, and the many questionable things one can download from the internet are a large part of why some people say the internet should have stricter sanctions placed upon it. There are some rare people who have been cyber-bullied into committing suicide, possibly by some once well meaning people who let their internet persona get out of hand. It may be all fun and games to vent some anger on the internet, but to some people that sort of thing can be very emotionally damaging.

2) You can have a conversation without having a conversation

What do I mean by that? Well let me use an example. In situation A you're out with a friend at a cafe and you see a man walking by wearing a tie-die shirt, rainbow suspenders, and rainbow jeans (they exist, trust me on this). You want to say something funny about him to your friend, but you can't think of the right line. While you're thinking your friend points to him and says, "I wonder is his boxers are the pot of gold." You smile and laugh a little while thinking damn, I wish I'd thought of that. In situation B you're on Facebook talking with that same friend while perusing all your like and friends and friends likes when you stumble across a picture of the very same man. You want to say something about him and after thinking of the right line for a couple minutes you hit upon it and link the picture to your friend with the comment just below. They type "lol :D" and you've nailed it.

What I'm trying to illustrate with that example is that conversations in person happen in real time, you have about a second at most to think about what you're going to say next and once you say something you can't unsay it. While on the internet you can think for hours about what you're going to say (I've been thinking about how to write this for almost a week now, and had the idea of this rant germinating for much longer). If you feel like it you can even edit each thing you say several times before saying it, like your own mini-essay. In theory the internet conversation format sounds preferable, but it does have drawbacks.

Most importantly, the inability to convey tone. In a conversation face-to-face there are tons nonverbal and verbals cues (divided about 80% verbal to 20% nonverbal) that we pick up on that tell us what people mean when they say something. There's still a lot of reading into things and guesswork on our part, but with all that information to help us it's a lot harder to be wrong. On the other hand, the closest thing the internet has to conveying tone are emoticons such as :) :D :( :< :3 >:( ^_^ , and while they may be amusing they don't do nearly as much to convey tone as an actual smile, frown, or furrowed brow.

 And yet tone is conveyed somehow. How exactly? By the other person's impression of us. Their own mental framework that outlines who we are to the person we are talking to defines how they read our words. The only control we as writers have is our choice of words.

Before moving on to the next topic I will address two things. One is the question, "But Sid, what about Skype and other video chat functions? They're also online forms of communication, but they have all that verbal/nonverbal stuff you were talking about."

I love Skype. I think it's a brilliant idea that allows people to be brought closer together over longer distances than the phones it might someday replace. But I choose to ignore it because not everyone has access to webcams and microphones, whereas everyone who owns a computer has access to a keyboard and mouse.

The other question is, "But Sid, what about letters? Letters have the same text-based flaws that internet chat and emails do, so why aren't you harping on them?"

For much the same reason I'm not focusing on Skype, the letter-writing community is much smaller than the texting/emailing community. Most people under the age of 40 don't write letters that often these days, but they send emails and text people all the time.

3) It has the potential to keep ones social life entirely inside a computer

Allow me to use a more personal example this time. My roommate spends almost all day every day skypeing with a group of friends. This friend group met playing online games (League, World of Warcraft, etc.), none of them live in the same state, and none of them have ever met in person. And yet, they maintain what would, if they were all in the same town, be considered a normative social life. They drink together, watch movies together (they time it perfectly so that they all start watching the same movie on their computers at the same time, it's fascinating), play games together, and discuss various semi-philosophical ideas, social problems, and political problems. If you heard about a group of people who did this in any city in the United States you wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but if each city were a different city, that's another story.

The example above is a rather extreme case, but there are many others. The internet is full of forums, debate sites, social media sites, online games, and blogs. All of which have the potential to draw one's attention for hours on end. It can be a sensory overload, as stimulating as it is time-consuming. And for the lonely, the neglected, or the ignored, the internet may be seen as a safe-haven.

 To reference number one of this rant you can be anyone you want to be. On the internet you aren't poor, alone, or (and I use this term to mean not beautiful by current societal standards, not to defame any particular person) ugly unless you want to be seen that way. Much like movies before the internet, or books before movies, the internet can prove a seductive escape, one which many people everyday lose themselves in to forget problems that exist in the outside world.

But what does this all mean for my opinion? This is a blog after all, what good would it be if I didn't throw my opinion into the ring. Like many things in this crazy world I believe the internet is just a tool. We humans have always been good at making tools, tools to farm and hunt, tools to build and trade, tools to entertain and kill, all sorts of wondrous things. It's strange to blame the tools for the work of their owners, just as it's strange to blame the internet as a whole for the destructive tendencies of those that call it home. A tool can be used positively or negatively, and in the end the person who should take responsibility for the results is the person who used the tool in the first place.

 I don't think anything about the internet, it's just another tool, but I think we should all be a little more socially conscientious in its use. In the end the internet is just another world within our own, and I think we as a whole should be working to make it a brighter place to live.

If I were to draw one question out of all of this for future me and perhaps my one visible reader it would be this: If you had to personify the internet, what would it be to you? Friend? Lover? Confidant? Therapist?