I work with one of the most heartbroken groups of people in the world: fathers whose adult children want nothing to do with them. While every day has its challenges, Father’s Day—with its parade of families and feel-good ads—makes it especially difficult for these Dads to avoid the feelings of shame, guilt and regret always lurking just beyond the reach of that well-practiced compartmentalization. Like birthdays, and other holidays, Father’s Day creates the wish, hope, or prayer that maybe today, please today, let me hear something, anything from my kid.

Many of these men are not only fathers but grandfathers who were once an intimate part of their grandchildren’s lives. Or, more tragically, they discovered they were grandfathers through a Facebook page, if they hadn’t yet been blocked. Or, they learn from an unwitting relative bearing excited congratulations, now surprised by the look of grief and shock that greets the newly announced grandfather. Hmm, what did I do with those cigars I put aside for this occasion?

And it’s not just being involved as a grandfather that gets denied. The estrangement may foreclose the opportunity to celebrate other developmental milestones he always assumed he’d attend, such as college graduations, engagement parties, or weddings. Maybe he was invited to the wedding but told he wouldn’t get to walk his daughter down the aisle because that privilege was being reserved for her father-in-law whom she’s decided is a much better father than he ever was.

Most people assume that a Dad would have to do something pretty terrible to make an adult child not want to have contact. My clinical experience working with estranged parents doesn’t bear this out. While those cases clearly exist, many parents get cut out as a result of the child needing to feel more independent and less enmeshed with the parent or parents. A not insignificant number of estrangements are influenced by a troubled or compelling son-in-law or daughter-in-law. Sometimes a parent’s divorce creates the opportunity for one parent to negatively influence the child against the other parent, or introduce people who compete for the parent’s love, attention or resources. In a highly individualistic culture such as ours, divorce may cause the child to view a parent more as an individual with relative strengths and weaknesses rather than a family unit of which they’re a part.

Little binds adult children to their parents today beyond whether or not the adult child wants that relationship. And a not insignificant number decide that they don’t.

While my clinical work hasn’t shown fathers to be more vulnerable to estrangement than mothers, they do seem to be more at risk of a lower level of investment from their adult children. A recent Pew survey found that women more commonly say their grown children turn to them for emotional support while men more commonly say this “hardly ever” or “never” occurs. This same study reported that half of adults say they are closer with their mothers, while only 15 percent say they are closer with their fathers.

So, yes, let’s take a moment to celebrate fathers everywhere. And another to feel empathy for those Dads who won’t have any contact with their child on Father’s Day.

Or any other day.

Josh Coleman is Co-Chair, Council on Contemporary Families, and author most recently of When Parents Hurt. Originally posted at Families as They Really Are.

I discovered a nice gem of an insight this week in an article called The 11 Ways That Consumers Are Hopeless at Math: the symbolism of the number 9.

We’re all familiar with the convention of pricing items one penny below a round number: $1.99 instead of $2.00, $39.99 instead of $40.00, etc. Psychologically, marketers know that this works. We’re more likely to buy something at $89.99 than we are at $90.00.

It’s not, though, because we are tricked by that extra penny for our pockets. It’s because, so argues Derek Thompson, the .99 symbolizes “discount.” It is more than just a number, it has a meaning. It now says to us not just 9, but also You are getting a deal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a carton of eggs for $2.99 or a dishwasher for $299.99. In both cases, putting two 9s at the end makes us feel like smart shoppers.

To bring this point home, in those moments when we’re not looking for a deal, the number 9 has the opposite effect. When marketers want to sell a “luxury” item, they generally don’t use the 9s. They simply state the round number price. The whole point of buying a luxury item is to spend a lot of money because you have the money to spend. It shouldn’t feel like a deal; it should feel like an indulgence. Thompson uses the example of lobster at a high-end restaurant. They don’t sell it to you for $99.99. That looks cheap. They ask you for the $100. And, if you’ve got the money and you’re in the mood, it feels good exactly in part because there are no 9s.

Definitely no 9s:

Photo by artjour street art flickr creative commons.

Not yet convinced? Consider as an example this price tag for a flat screen television. Originally priced at $2,300.00, but discounted at $1,999.99. Suddenly on sale and a whole lot of 9s:

Photo by Paul Swansen flickr creative commons; cropped.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday. 

Responding to critics who argue that poor people do not choose to eat healthy food because they’re ignorant or prefer unhealthy food, dietitian Ellyn Satter wrote a hierarchy of food needs. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it illustrates Satter’s ideas as to the elements of food that matter first, second, and so on… starting at the bottom.

The graphic suggests that getting enough food to eat is the most important thing to people. Having food be acceptable (e.g., not rotten, something you are not allergic to) comes second. Once those two things are in place, people hope for reliable access to food and only then do they begin to worry about taste. If people have enough, acceptable, reliable, good-tasting food, then they seek out novel food experiences and begin to make choices as to what to eat for instrumental purposes (e.g., number of calories, nutritional balance).

As Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist writes, sometimes when a person chooses to eat nutritionally deficient or fattening foods, it is not because they are “stupid, ignorant, lazy, or just a bad, bad person who loves bad, bad food.”  Sometimes, it’s “because other needs come first.”

Originally posted in 2010; hat tip to Racialicious; cross-posted at Jezebel.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

How observant are you? Here’s a test! Pay careful attention, then scroll down:

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Perception is not neutral, it’s curated. If we paid attention to everything in our environments all the time, we’d be overwhelming with information. So, we learn to direct our attention to what seems important at the moment. As a result, we miss a lot. See this example, too.

The directing of our attention is situationally specific, so we learn to adapt our seeing to differing circumstances. When driving, we see different things than we do when we’re walking down the sidewalk or sitting on our front porch. When engaged in a conversation with friends at a bar, we hear different things than when we momentarily turn our focus to the band across the room. When meditating, we feel different things than when we’re daydreaming or waiting to fall asleep. In all these cases, we miss seeing, hearing, and feeling different things, too.

We can imagine that sensation is culturally specific, too, such that people familiar with different cultures literally sense the world differently. Studies comparing the cognition of people from East Asia and America — communal and individualistic societies, respectively — find that Americans looking at a picture tend to focus on a central object, whereas East Asians pay attention to the relationships between objects.

In one study, Japanese and American citizens were shown an underwater scene, like this:

Photo by mycatkins, flickr creative commons.

Asked to describe the scene afterward, Americans started with and focused on the biggest fish, while the Japanese started with the whole picture — for example, “It was a fish tank” — and recalled more details about the rocks, plants, bubbles, and smaller denizens of the pond. “Americans immediately zoomed in on the objects,” the lead scientist Richard Nisbett said. “The Japanese paid more attention to context.”

Our experience of the world isn’t neutral. It’s shaped by our cultural backgrounds, situations, and choices about how to direct our attention. So, the question is, what are you missing? And what are you seeing that others do not?

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Center for Love and Sex.

The Director of Center for Love and Sex, Sari Cooper, had the wonderful idea of doing a Q&A exchange. I recently wrote a book about sex in college, American Hookup, and she works as a therapist with young people in their post-graduation romantic and sexual relationships. I was curious to hear about the issues that millennials are grappling with once they get out into the working world and begin to date, and she wanted to hear more about my research regarding the state of hookups on campus.  So, we swapped questions and agreed to cross-post our answers.

Sari Cooper interviews Lisa Wade 

Given that hookups have been criticized in the larger American culture and media for some time now, I thought I would begin our conversation on a constructive thread.  What have you found are positive emotional. psychological and physical outcomes/by products reported by young adults engaging in hookups during their college years? 

Most students arrive on campus eager to experiment with casual sexual contact, even if just a little. They see sexual activity as a natural part of being human, are increasingly tolerant of a wide range of sexual orientations, and largely reject the idea that it’s okay to judge sexually active women more harshly than men. Thanks to the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation, the stigma of sexual activity has largely lifted.

In that environment, many young people enjoy “first times” — first kisses, first blow jobs, first one night stands — and honing new sexual skills. Many find it exciting to be participating in a part of life that is new to them (puberty was just a few years ago and 50% are virgins when they arrive on campus). It’s pleasurable to indulge one’s desires, to do new things, and to improve, no less with sex than with anything else in life.

Hookups offer these things to young people and, for a nontrivial minority of students, hookups are everything they want. For up to a quarter of students, hookups are incredibly gratifying. Research shows that students who claim to thrive in hookup culture really do: the more they hookup, the higher their self-esteem and sense of well-being.

What intersectionalities did you find in your research regarding status in terms of desirability with racial, gender and LGBTQ culture?  When research is done is it mostly skewed towards white, cisgender heterosexual sexual behaviors?

Students of color, women, and non-heterosexual students report more dissatisfaction with hookup culture and hooking up less than their counterparts, as do students who grew up poor or working-class. Non-heterosexual students often find that hookup culture is indifferent or hostile to their sexualities, so some avoid the hyper-heterosexualized spaces of hookup culture. LGBTQ students, especially if they are men, are much more likely to seek hookups off-campus.

Students of color simultaneously face a white supremacist standard of attractiveness and the possibility of being eroticized as “exotic.” This tends to play out differently for different kinds of students. Black men and Asian women are often fetishized, while black women and Asian men are often actively avoided. On average, then, white students hookup more than nonwhite students.

The other thing that I have found interesting in my work with clients is the vague aspect of the term hookup.  How did your research subjects define hookups?  And what behaviors were more frequently engaged in during hookups on campus?

Students generally agree that any sexually charged activity can count as a hookup, so long as there is no expectation of future sexual or romantic interaction. In practice, 40% of hookups include intercourse, 12% include only what we might call foreplay (nudity and some touching of genitals), 13% proceed to oral sex but don’t include intercourse, and 35% don’t go any farther than kissing and groping.

What were the most common emotions young people stated they experienced during and after a hookup?

Two psychologists -– Elizabeth Paul and Kristen Hayes -– asked students what emotions they thought their peers felt when they were in the midst of a typical hookup. Their respondents listed emotions as wide-ranging as excitement, embarrassment, regret, fear, anxiety, confusion, and pride, but the most common answer—mentioned by two-thirds of their sample—was lust. The next most common answer, though, wasn’t any of the other emotions listed, it was “nothing,” the absence of emotion. So, students tend to believe that their peers are feeling turned on, but not much else.

Of course, in practice students are experiencing all kinds of emotions — positive and negative, strong and weak, wanted and unwanted — but when they do they often feel bad about it. Believing that their peers are much better at having “emotionless sex,” they feel like they are failing at hookup culture.

What percentage of your study opted out of hookups entirely?  Did you have numbers on whether these young people remained celibate, and/or chose to be in longer-term relationships that involved emotions?

A third of students opt out, reporting zero hookups at graduation, but many of these students don’t end up in relationships instead. On college campuses today, most relationships form out of a series of hookups. Students hook up together once, then twice and then three times, and eventually they start breaking the rules of hookup culture (they begin to like each other and say so). At that point, students will often go on dates and consider beginning an emotionally committed relationship. For students who aren’t willing to hook up, this can’t happen, so relationships can be elusive.

Lastly, what percentage of those that participated in hook-ups reported being in the following states:

  • had had some alcohol,
  • felt drunk
  • had had no/minimal alcohol
  • completely sober

Most students are at least a little bit drunk when they hook up because inebriation is a primary way that they signal to one another that what they are doing is meaningless. Being drunk is a sign that they are being careless, both about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. Sober sex, in contrast, is heavily weighted with meaning. As one of my students explained: “[If you are sober] it means you both are particularly attracted to each other and it’s not really a one-time thing. When drunk, you can kind of just do it because it’s fun and then be able to laugh about it and have it not be awkward or not mean anything. Many of my sexually active students, then, had actually never had sex sober.

Lisa Wade interviews Sari Cooper 

Many parents are worried that their children no longer value emotional closeness, committed relationships, or building a family life. Should they be worried that they’ll children will choose never to marry or have children?

This is a many-layered question. I actually think once young adults are out in the working world for a few years, some of these millennials are yearning for a close intimate relationship because they see how much they need the comfort and consistency of an ongoing partner. In my practice Center for Love and Sex, we see people in their mid to late twenties and early thirties who are either seeking a meaningful, emotionally close relationship or those that are already in a committed relationship but need help. But the meaning of commitment to this age group may look similar or different to their parents. In other words, some couples are committed to one another as primary bond partners but choose to have a non-monogamous agreement, or decide not to marry or decide to marry but live in different cities while building their careers.

I think parents need to ask themselves what value they place on their children having children, is it a desire to be a grandparent and have that experience, or is it that they think it’s the religiously, or traditionally correct thing to do? I have found couples who have discussed their desire to have children before getting married while also working with couples who are figuring out what neighborhood to live in together without discussing

a) what moving in together means in terms of their commitment to the relationship, or one another or

b) seriously whether each person is aligned with the other around having children in their future.

Lastly, I think many of the college-educated millennials I see in my practice are so focused on their careers that having children may be put on the back burner. These are the couples I see later on in their life when they have trouble with fertility and going through infertility treatments, or have children one right after the other and are struck by the huge toll raising small children while keeping up with both of their demanding jobs has on their romantic and sexual connection.

 What kind of sexual culture are young people out of college encountering? Is the hookup script still powerful? Is the dating script? Is monogamy still the assumed frame for emotional commitment? Or have polyamory and open relationships gone mainstream?

 For those millennials who have gone to college, the first few years on their own may still include hook-ups or casual dating as they are spending more time on establishing themselves professionally and/or living on a modest salary with their parents or roommates. However, the dating is pretty commitment-free and at times frustrating for those looking for a relationship since much of the app-driven “dating” is texting with someone for weeks on end before actually meeting. Some reasons might be that the texting over weeks provides a person with the banter or insight as to whether they actually want to devote time to an actual date (the equivalent of talking to someone at a bar or party for a while before asking or getting asked for a phone number). However, either while this chat-texting is going on the person may “ghost” you, that is, they may just stop texting back. While this no-show experience would happen in the pre-cell phone days, the “ghosting” may also occur after people have dated a few times, perhaps hooked up or even had intercourse together. The person being ghosted becomes more and more skeptical of what real attachment can really be gained from their next “match”.

I find that people don’t begin dating seriously till their later twenties. Monogamy is still the assumed frame of emotional commitment once the couple has had “the exclusion talk”. However the millennial cohort seems more open to talk about having alternative arrangements monogamy-wise. Navigating this agreement is a presenting issue with which couples come in to CLS to get help negotiating since they recognize it can bring up jealousy and are not sure how to establish boundaries that will work for both partners. While I don’t think it has gone mainstream, I do think that traditional agreements are being questioned.

Students say that the skills and strategies for negotiating hookup culture are essentially the opposite of the skills and strategies they need for negotiating committed relationships. After graduation, when students seek out more meaningful relationships, do you find that they struggle with emotional openness, closeness, and risk-taking?

I find the skills needed to develop relationships in the early stages are a bit different than the ones later on so I’ll answer these questions separately. I think because so much time in college is spent either opting out of the hook-up culture or participating in it usually under the influence of alcohol, emotional vulnerability with someone to whom you are also erotically attracted hardly ever occurs. However college students usually develop close platonic friendships.

 Some of these friendships can even develop into love relationships later on. However, they may never have been erotically attached to these partners. So some of these young adults may know how to be good partners, considerate roommates, and love one another but there is very little sexual fizz in that occurs. These couples come in as they’re about to become engaged, get married or decide to have a baby. They are what I call companionate couples and they are open about most everything except their sexual desires and so they are not having much if any sexual contact at all.

Since they haven’t had a lot of practice negotiating compromise over long periods of time, if someone does meet someone with whom they have sexual chemistry, they don’t know how to manage day-to-day conflicts like:

Can you shower before you come on to me?

Do you expect me to walk the dog every day you’re off on this bachelorette trip?

Why are you not saving more money?

If they haven’t developed constructive communication skills, these conflicts can head south quickly and then they may look at their partner and wonder where did my erotic attraction for them go? They may get scared and end the relationship before understanding that to get back into their erotic groove requires patience, openness to listen and practice empathy to come to a connection again. Hookups don’t help in the sustaining enough patience to feel like you’re going to come through it to the other side and find your partner attractive again.

 If they do, is this something to be overly concerned about? Do they learn these skills effectively despite their experience (or lack of experience) in hookup culture? Or are they inhibited from doing so in a way that they wouldn’t have been had they not adapted to this new college context?

 I would say that they’re just starting later and need more practice at the integration of emotional intimacy and sexual connection since they have begun later. For a portion of these millennials, their life online has become more primary to their face-to-face relationships or dates. Whether it’s swiping right or left as a self-esteem sport to see how many matches one gets, or masturbating to porn which doesn’t require expertise, courage to make mistakes or consideration of a partner’s needs/feelings, some young adults prefer to remain on their own as a protective expression against vulnerability, performance anxiety or rejection.

Do students in committed relationships struggle specifically with sexual intimacy? Some of my students worried that the imperative to make sex “meaningless” would later interfere with their ability to experience it as “meaningful.” Acts of tenderness — like cuddling, prolonged eye contact, and gentle kisses — are off script in hookup culture; many of my students had never experienced those things, despite being sexually active. Is it challenging for them to learn how to incorporate tenderness into their sexualities?

This is a good question. I should preface the answer that sexual intimacy is like beauty, it’s in the eye and body of each individual. I think that acts of tenderness can be challenging for some, especially if you’ve spent years compartmentalizing your emotions from your sexual practices. After the novelty of a relationship dies down, a couple really does need to dig deeper to find out what kinds of sexual activity they like and how they become able to enter the erotic zone. One can’t rely only on intrinsic horniness because for many reasons (stress at work, lack of sleep, hormone changes) this may not be as regularly available. So learning to practice intimacy (which is unique to each person) and relaxation as an entryway into erotic connection are skills that people can learn. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first (remember the first time you French-kissed?), but with practice incorporating emotional intimacy (which may or may not include some of the acts you described) into sexual connection can gradually feel more syntonic.

What is some of the most important advice that young people need to hear? If you could get a message to each and every young person transitioning out of college, what would it be?

I would say to the millennials to educate yourself about your erotic triggers to increase your Sex Esteem®. This education can be gleaned from this blog and the following sites: my webshow Sex Esteem® with Sari Cooper, Columbia University’s site Go Ask Alice, and the vast list of sites on Dartmouth University’s site, Gay Men’s Good Sex Guide, and the following books: Guide to Getting it On, Sex For One, She Comes First, The New Male Sexuality, Come as You Are, and SexSmart.

Sari Cooper, LCSW is a licensed individual, couples and AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist. She specializes in working on issues such as sexual disorders, sexual avoidance, couples communication, affairs, separation, depression, anxiety, and alternative sexual interests. She is the Founder and Director of Center for Love and Sex

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Add to the list of new books to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine. Feeding my interest in the issue of sexual dimorphism in humans — which we work so hard to teach to children — the book is described like this:

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars.

Good reviews here and here report that Fine tackles an often-cited study of newborn infants’ sex difference in preferences for staring at things, by Jennifer Connellan and colleagues in 2000. They reported:

…we have demonstrated that at 1 day old, human neonates demonstrate sexual dimorphism in both social and mechanical perception. Male infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face.

And this led to the conclusion: “The results of this research clearly demonstrate that sex differences are in part biological in origin.” They reached this conclusion by alternately placing Connellan herself or a dangling mobile in front of tiny babies, and timing how long they stared. There is a very nice summary of problems with the study here, which seriously undermine its conclusion.

However, even if the methods were good, this is a powerful example of how a tendency toward difference between males and females is turned into a categorical opposition between the sexes — as in, the “real differences between boys and girls.”

To illustrate this, here’s a graphic look at the results in the article, which were reported in this table:

They didn’t report the whole distribution of boys’ and girls’ gaze-times, but it’s obvious that there is a huge overlap in the distributions, despite a difference in the means. In the mobile-gaze-time, for example, the difference in averages is 9.7 seconds, while the standard deviations are more than 20 seconds. If I turn to my handy normal curve spreadsheet template, and fit it with these numbers, you can see what the pattern might look like (I truncate these at 0 seconds and 70 seconds, as they did in the study):

Source: My simulation assuming normal distributions from the data in the table above.

All I’m trying to say is that the sexes aren’t opposites, even if they have some differences that precede socialization.

If you could show me that the 1-day-olds who stare at the mobiles for 52 seconds are more likely to be engineers when they grow up than the ones who stare at them for 41 seconds (regardless of their gender) then I would be impressed. But absent that, if you just want to use such amorphous differences at birth to explain actual segregation among real adults, then I would not be impressed.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

In August of 2010, NPR reported on a scale developed by a forensic psychologist, Michael Stone, on which murderers could be placed according to how evil they are (from slightly evil to really, really really evil).  To illustrate the scale, NPR developed this graphic:

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the artists designing this graphic did not purposefully associate darker skin-like colors with more evil and lighter skin-like colors with less evil.  I think this is a fair assumption, though I don’t know for sure that this is true.  But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

If they didn’t do this on purpose, then race never consciously entered their minds.  Once you notice that the colors are skin-like colors, and if you are a member of a society that discriminates against darker-skinned people, you immediately see that this graphic reproduces those stereotypes… AND YOU CHANGE THE COLORS.   Any color, going from light to dark, will illustrate intensity.  How about red?  In Western societies, red is associated with anger.   If you insist on using black because black signifies evil in our culture, how about using a true black (that is very rarely if ever seen on people) and a gray scale?  How about any color other than brown?

I think this is likely a case in which the producers of the image did not think.  And not thinking is one of the most insidious ways that racism and other bigotries get reproduced.  People who don’t think about race are the most likely to endorse racial stereotypes.  When people who think about race are distracted — with another task, or loud music, or some other intervening stimulus — they are more likely to think stereotypically than when they are not distracted.  We can’t be colorblind.  Our unconscious is steeped in racial meanings.  Consciously fighting those associations is the only way to be less racist.

Not thinking about race is a cousin to thinking racist thoughts.  Only thinking hard about race helps alleviate racism.  And this graphic is an excellent example of why.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

A girl takes a selfie, posts it to Instagram, and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long – a minute or two – before the likes and comments start rolling in. “Gorgeous,” “So pretty OMG,” “Stunning,” “Cutest.”

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You can see why people might look at this and think: narcissism. You can see why they might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

Here is a slightly edited-down excerpt of the first part of the show. As Ira Glass says, if you have teenage girls in your life, you’re probably familiar with this. I don’t and I’m not, so I found it fascinating listening. (When the girls were reading their comments, I thought one of the girls, Jane, was saying “Hard eyes,” and I couldn’t imagine why that was a compliment. Turns out, she was saying “Heart eyes.”) Here’s Ira Glass’s distillation:

They want comments from other girls. This is not about sex. It’s not about boys. It’s about girls, and friendship. And it’s very repetitive – the same phrases, over and over.

All these moves – the posting, the commenting and liking – have a meaning that girls know intuitively but that must be decoded for outsiders like me and Ira.


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Transcript:

Ira Glass: These comments are a very specific language that tells the girls all kinds of things.  And a lot of the meaning in the comments has nothing to do with the actual words. . .  It’s about who is doing the commenting . . .  Liking a photo means something totally different from commenting. You comment with someone you’re close to or someone you want to get close to.

Ella: It’s definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Jane:  Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

It’s hard to find narcissism or vanity in any of this. The girls are not preening, not basking in their triumphs, not nursing an ego wounded from some social slight. They are reading a constantly changing sociogram or network model of their world.

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Transcript:

Ira Glass:  They’re only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia:  One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn’t, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she’s, like, really good friends with, just ’cause we’re in high school and there’’s that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass:  Do you have people who you’re jealous of?

Jane: Yeah.

Julia:  Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see– like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane:  Yeah.

Julia:  Just to see, like, the whole– like, the whole social like map.

Jane:  Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who’s with who, who’s hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia:  If you didn’t have it, like, I feel like I’d be missing so much. And it would just –

Jane:    Because you wouldn’t see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass:  Well, no, that’s, I feel like, the thing that I’m understanding from this conversation, is like – it’s actually like, you’re getting a picture of your entire social world and who’s up and who’s down and who’s close to who, and it’s like you’re getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane:  Yeah.

Ella:  Yeah.

Jane:  Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass: As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella: Yeah.

Jane:  Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia:  It’s crazy.

If you look at the individual –a girl posting a selfie and reading the laudatory comments – you see a personality trait, narcissism. But the behavior that looks like narcissism is really an aspect of the social structure (girls’ friendships networks) and the institution those networks are embedded in (school).

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.