I love talking on the phone. At least once a week, for at least an hour, I catch up with my best friend over the phone. And at least every other week, I check in with my mom and grandma via phone call or FaceTime. Talking to my friends and family on the phone is important, and I have found the same is true for most of my girlfriends. Weirdly, talking on the phone does not seem to be as important to our male friends — including, often problematically, our boyfriends.
It’s not just us. This difference in phone use between men and women seems to be true across the country—even globally. In a recent study, Dr. Andrew Lepp and colleagues at Kent State University set out to investigate the impact of cellphone use on college students’ relationships with their parents and peers. On average, they found that (though it was not a significant difference) women sent and received more texts than men, and despite similar numbers of calls between men and women, women spent more total time on the phone. The same researchers have collected data for over 1,000 people in a variety of studies and in general this trend seems to hold. Similarly, in a cross-national study, Dr. Naomi Baron and student Elise Campbell of American University found that women from multiple countries had a higher volume of text messages and were more likely than men to use phones to facilitate social interaction.
Women were also more likely to complain about reachability by phone and preferred to talk (instead of text) so that they could hear the voice of the person on the other end. On the other hand, awkwardly, men were more likely than women to report pretending to talk on their phones in order to avoid a conversation with an acquaintance.
In the Kent State study, Lepp and colleagues found that — for women — calling is positively related to emotional closeness to parents, and texting is positively related to emotional closeness to peers. Interestingly, neither of these associations were true for the men in the study. Men’s calls, texts, and total cell phone use were not correlated with any measures of parent and peer communication, trust, or alienation. What are women doing that men aren’t?
In general, women have greater attachment with their peers and parents than men do. “Perhaps,” Lepp speculated in an email, “men don’t value attachment and intimacy as much as women. Perhaps men have been socially conditioned to place greater emphasis on feelings of independence. By extension, then, perhaps males are not interested in the relationship building/sustaining potential of a phone.” (Perhaps they aren’t using the right apps.)
The differences might also stem from fundamental communication differences between the sexes. Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen has researched and written extensively about the differences in conversational styles between men and women. While women tend engage in “rapport talk” to promote intimacy, men tend to engage in “report talk” to convey information. While women focus on building a connection through conversation, men focus on establishing relative hierarchy. These trends have been found not only in face-to-face conversation but in written communication, such as emails and letters, as well. So it is likely that women value the social role of phone calls and texts more than men do.
I suggested this to Lepp, and he replied that the idea fits the data, but he also had his own casual observations of social life: “What happens then when a female wants to use the phone with her intimate male partner? There is a study!” Well, I haven’t conducted it officially, but I can hypothesize…
But, Lepp cautioned, emphasizing the gendered differences in cell phone use “clouds the fact that both men and women use it a lot, for about a third of their waking hours—both men and women may be problematic or compulsive users.” Importantly, he and his colleagues found that problematic cell phone use — addiction-like cravings and use that disrupts normal activities, such as class time, studying and sleep — is related to reduced feelings of attachment with parents and peers for both men and women. “In other words,” said Lepp in a statement, “the students in the study who tended to use their cell phones compulsively and at inappropriate times felt less socially connected to parents and peers than other students.”
“Both men and women are susceptible and need to reflect critically on their cell phone use behaviors.” Face-to-face communication is important for everyone. Lepp and colleagues think that problematic cell phone use — and not necessarily gendered differences in communication — may be putting our relationships in danger.
Their practical advice? Nothing you haven’t heard before: “Spend time each day nurturing the relationships that are important to you, and that often means putting the cell phone and other screens away for a bit. Then, look that important other person in the eye and have an old fashioned conversation.”