So, after a day of pondering this, I decided to change my relationship status back to “single” since that now seemed to reflect my status best. And that’s when things really got interesting… While Facebook lets us write in our religious and political views, it continues to force us to select our relationship status from a list. That list is rather biased: Single is the only non-coupled option – out of a total of 11 options (notice that the “it’s complicated” is still there – except it shows up in “about” as “in a complicated relationship”):
I selected single. And got a puzzling message:
It will not appear in the News Feed. Facebook decided that I would not want to announce that I changed from being in a coupled relationship to being single. Sure, maybe I don’t want the pity party that almost inevitably follows such a change in this couplemanic culture. My question, though is: Why isn’t that my choice? How about asking: Do you want this to appear in the News Feed? When I returned to my page, I also noticed that “single” did not appear under About. Facebook decided to hide that status.
I got curious: What would happen if I changed it back? So I went back and selected “it’s complicated again” (quietly hoping that my Facebook connections would forgive my playing around with this status that others deem so much more important than I do). And guess what: The exact opposite happened! Not only did my relationship status reappear in the About section, Facebook also decided to loudly announce it: As a highlighted change on my timeline.
You’re probably rolling your eyes by now: What’s the big deal here? Just don’t display any relationship status if the options Facebook gives you don’t suit you – a choice a friend makes. Yes, I agree, on some level this is not a big deal. And that, too, is a big deal because we don’t even notice the stereotyping and discrimination that goes on here. Seemingly little things, when they occur within the context of a stereotyping culture, perpetuate those stereotypes. If we didn’t live in a culture that undervalues women’s contributions, a man holding the door for “a lady” would not be a big deal. In this culture, that little gesture reinforces the idea that women are too weak to do things without the help of a strong guy.
Let’s step back a little and take a look at the development of stereotypes to give this some context. The most basic definition of stereotypes describes them as traits, characteristics, or qualities that are attributed to a group or members of that group based on group membership. In other words, stereotypes associate certain qualities with certain people. It’s a mental short-cut connecting the trait, characteristic, or quality to a type of person. We do that all the time: That’s how we identify a cat or a dog, too, for example. The additional layer of a stereotype that makes it problematic is what’s added by the cultural meaning associated with the trait, characteristic, or quality: Some are considered valuable and others are to be avoided. For example, sexist stereotypes categorize traits associated with women, i.e. nurturing, as less valuable.
Stereotypes, as well as any other mental short-cut association, are formed through repetition. We associate the word “cat” with a feline animal after someone pointed to the creature and said “cat” a few times. Cultural messages associating being single with something less valuable are all around us: Happily ever after always involves a couple. Just a one-off message is unlikely to create a stereotypical association. When we’re bathed in those devaluing associations, though, the stereotypes stick. These associations, then, form the basis of stereotypes against singles – or singlism – as incomplete and pitiable, living in a state that has to be hidden because it’s too shameful to announce to be single. When Facebook announces one relationship status and not another, it is reinforcing exactly this cultural valuation, reinforcing the stereotype.
Why does it matter that singles are stereotyped? Stereotypes form the foundation of discrimination and are internalized as shame. Discrimination against singles is rather costly. Possibly more damaging, though, is the shame. Shame shows up in the belief that we are not good enough and/or that there is something wrong with us. When we become single and that’s not an event worthy of announcement, it suggests that there must be something wrong with that event. In this culture, we often learn to blame ourselves for such events: There must be something wrong with us – that’s why it happened to us. Shame is a toxic emotion that often leads to depression or violence. Based on research in social psychology, there is nothing helpful about shame.
Thus, just like with the small gestures that reinforce the cultural message that women are less valuable than men, the way Facebook deals with our relationship status reinforces the cultural message that being single is less valuable than being coupled. And that is why it’s so problematic: It reinforces singlism, making the discrimination and shaming of singles acceptable.