Strangers Offline, Friends Online

Messaging apps may be helping the youth circumvent physical firewalls and build deeper ties online. But there’s more. The geographies of some classrooms in India host more than the usual markers of education. Along with the blackboards, desks and benches, there is also a line of control that stretches through their middle.

This is a metaphorical fence rooted in deeply entrenched social norms, its invisibility rendered only more conspicuous in what it seeks to keep apart. So while one part of the classroom is for the boys, the other is for the girls. And the twain seldom meets.

Along with a couple of my colleagues from the Xerox Research Centre India, I spent a semester in a few such classrooms in a college in Bengaluru. As an ethnographer, I was trying to understand teaching and learning processes that would help us build learning solutions.

That the classrooms we were in were gender segregated and friendships largely homosocial, was a tiny surprise for those of us who had studied at slightly more liberal institutions in the country. After all, educational institutions are powerful spaces of socialisation where social norms that include rules about gender behaviour sanctioned by the larger society are learned and perpetuated.

The walls
However, just how fraught with tension the stakes of cross-gender communication were became clear when the third-year students who participated in our study confessed that they had never ever spoken to their classmates of the opposite sex.

This, after being co-present in the same classroom and seeing each other every day for well over five semesters. Explanations varied from “professors scold us if we sit together” to “it is against culture and tradition” and “this is to maintain discipline”. Two boys with a reputation for being ‘brave’ enough to speak to girls shared how they were once pulled up by a teacher in class to discuss their behaviour.

The girls in turn spoke of the social shaming and gossip that followed them if they responded to a boy’s attempts at interaction. The few couples who were public about their relationship recalled the whispers that followed them everywhere in the early days of their courtship before their peers slowly reconciled to the idea of an open romance in their midst. And this was still Bengaluru with nary a khap panchayat in sight.

Employing the tools of my ethnographic trade, I hung around wherever I could — observing, interviewing and gathering bits of information which would help us construct a useful picture. From attending lectures to being a quiet observer in the staffroom.

From hanging around corridors to the crowds that gathered when a cricket match was in progress, we slowly progressed to sharing plates of masala vadais and coffee in the canteen with the students and I began gaining entrée into their worlds. A couple of months later, I went native and moved into the college hostel for a more immersive lived experience of their daily lives.

Virtual alliances
Sharing the routines of hostel life with students worked its own charm. And soon, I learned that the line of control in their classrooms was being routinely breached. Girls and boys who carefully avoided each other in class were in fact holding long conversations with each other everyday. Why, some were even BFFs. And the only reason why none of this was visible was because this was all only on WhatsApp.

Looking at the class through the new found lens of WhatsApp was a revelation. My attempts to reconcile the students I knew in the classroom with the ones I encountered on the virtual space that they had created for themselves on a mobile instant messaging app left the students amused.

One girl, who was the first to share details of her friendship with two of her male classmates, laughed at my growing absorption in the intricacies of how boys and girls were getting to know one another in her class and said, “I have long conversations with the boys on WhatsApp.

“In class we don’t even look at each other.” As I probed, more vignettes were shared. We soon learned that the growing adoption of WhatsApp along with its group messaging functionality allowed students to infiltrate through their largely homosocial frontiers. It allowed them a more permissive space, where they could become friends with the opposite sex — albeit only online.

What’s happening
The students lamented the societal taboos that drove their heterosocial interactions under wraps. Most preferred to conduct their friendships in the safe confines of mobile app privacy or quickly adopt the boy or girl as “a brother” or “a sister” to avoid gossip.

If the girls said they would not know how to react if the boys were to talk to them in person, the boys confessed to feeling a sense of overpowering anxiety at the thought of having to speak to girls.

The functionality of WhatsApp though allowed them to engage in a range of interactions — from forwarding jokes and puzzles that they would work together as a group to crack, to sharing notes through photo images, from discussing professorial quirks that caused amusement, to exhorting each one to go out and vote during last years’ general elections.

It was all happening, but only on their mobile phones. One boy contrasted these activities with his offline interaction with a girl and said, “In class, the most I can do is wish a girl good morning and ask if she has had breakfast today.”

On WhatsApp though, things played out differently. The app was affording the students a chance to imagine an alternative classroom. One, where they could function as a single unit. “I wanted our class to have unity and we achieved that through WhatsApp because nobody would speak to each other otherwise,” the administrator of one of the class groups said. So, this is one slice of the communication behaviour of young India today. The future workforce and demographic dividend that the country hopes to reap.

Smart enough to reach for their mobile phones to make their way around restrictions, but left bewildered and handicapped at the thought of reproducing it in their offline lives. Perhaps time to petition for a revision of the normative syllabi from which collective Indian society draws its lessons.

The writer is a researcher with the Human Interactions group at Xerox Research Centre India