Given the large number of reports of relationships that initiate online there is now a need for understanding exactly how these relationships began. A study was conducted in order to explore and comprehend how this phenomenon works.
One hypothesis that stated that the body would be used to flirt with as frequently online as offline, was partly supported. However, it was found that individuals downplayed the importance of physical attractiveness online. Women flirted by displaying nonverbal signals (offline) or substitutes for nonverbal cues (online), more than men. In chat rooms men were more likely than women to initiate contact.
This study aimed to explore whether men and women flirt online in traditionally defined ways. While it is recognized here that there is a great range of flirting behaviors that social scientists ought to consider, this study limited its focus to the following: nonverbal behaviors,
such as smiling, gaze and touch; substitutes for nonverbal behaviors, such as emoticons (smiles, winks), acronyms (LOL ó laugh out loud), descriptions of physical attractiveness, descriptions of socioeconomic status, and initiating contact.
Body language can signal attraction without the obviousness of the spoken word. This ambiguity protects people from any humiliation if the person to whom they are signaling attraction does not share their sentiments. Some basic codes that are important to consider in flirting include kinetics, oculesics, physical appearance, olfactics, vocalics, proxemics (personal distance) and haptics (the use of touch). While individuals might be skilled at displaying these flirting signals in face-to-face encounters, the question is how are these traditional offline cues replicated online -- if at all?
While the current study does provide some evidence that we must consider the online presence of the body, it must not be ignored that it was found here that physical appearance does not play as important a role online as it does offline in the development of romantic relationships. Perhaps by minimizing this, individuals are able to maintain some anonymity, and being unidentifiable possibly creates more opportunities for individuals to open up.
The gender differences revealed were interesting. Despite the changes that the women's movement has brought about and the increased likelihood that women can
support themselves and their children, when it comes to initiating relationships women still
pay more attention to men resources than to their physical bodies. This appears to be evident across all media, including face-to-face, personal ads and, as this study has found, chat rooms. Despite the opportunities provided by the Internet to experiment with identity, this study suggests that gender roles are not transcended online.
The study demonstrates that women tend to flirt more than men both online and offline by emphasizing physical attributes. This study challenges the oft-touted claim by theorists that the Internet is a place where there is a meeting of minds, in absence of the body. Instead,
it is suggested here that researchers focus more on how the body is reconstructed on the Internet.
Pencil sketch of two uniformed women.
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