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Cultures converge as “I love you” becomes “I<3U”

2011 is the summer of the “hand heart” as everyone from sports figures to politicians to rock star wannabes press thumbs and fingers together to communicate “I love you!” to crowds of random strangers. Evolving technology has changed what we mean when we say “I love you” and what was once a largely North American phrase (when used publically and in a non-romantic context) has spread to other, traditionally less expressive, societies.

I don’t think that North Americans necessarily realise that not everyone in world uses the word “love” quite as relentlessly as we do. I realised this many years ago when I was mocked mercilessly for declaring that I had loved my dinner when visiting the UK. It isn’t just the Brits who feel this way; most other cultures have traditionally reserved this language for private expressions of romantic love rather than casual declarations.

For example, when McDonalds launched their "I’m Loving it!" ad campaign in Germany in 2003, they raised the ire of commentators for using the German expression “Ich liebe es” (a literal translation for an expression of love). One such commentator wrote:

An American is relatively quick in expressing love for profane things and therefore is able to give his/her heart to fast food. The German translation “Ich liebe es,” however, is just too strong to be squeezed into a styrofoam box together with a fatty burger.

Technology has changed the frequency in which we communicate with each other. For example, in the past I would likely speak to my sister (who lives as far away from me as possible while remaining in the same country) perhaps once a month. Now that we both have Blackberry Messenger we speak several times a day. With more frequent communication comes saying goodbye more frequently. In the past I would always end my conversations with my sister with a “love you!” and that never changed when our frequency of communication increased. So increased communication spurred by technology has increased expressions of love and, as is often the case, reduced them to emoticon hearts and hugs.

Not only has the frequency of communication increased but more and more communication is devoid of physical or verbal contact. For example, when we see each other I can give you non-verbal cues that I have affection for you. When we speak I can communicate affection through my tone of voice or other verbal responses that do not require an explicit statement of love. When we communicate only in writing, however, I am short on cues that communicate affection and that compel me to explicitly state that affection in words or symbols.

So across all cultures explicit expressions of love and affection are increasing as a direct result of the technology we use to communicate – both in manner and frequency.

There appears to be some “catch-up” between North America, where expressions of love have never been uncommon and other cultures, like Germany, where expressions of love have been traditionally reserved for those who are married or engaged and that catch up is fuelled by electronic communication.

So now electronically saying goodbye, with its lack of non-verbal and verbal cues, in Germany includes texting abbreviations ild (Ich liebe dich – I love you), hdl (hab dich lieb -- hold you dear), hdal (hab dich auch lieb -- hold you dear, too) and hdgdl (hab dich ganz doll lieb -- hold you very dear); expressions that traditionally were reserved for private expressions of romantic love.

Common usage of these expressions in electronic communication is bound to translate into common usage in verbal communication and a significant break from their usage in the past.

Why I find this story so interesting is that it is an example of technology driven cultural convergence; technological change is driving cultural change and because different cultures adopt the same new technologies the manner in which cultures are changing is identical.

So I am sending out a hand heart to all my Dollars and Sex readers. Of course I <3 you all!

Gareis, Elisabeth and Richard Wilkins (2011). “Love expression in the United States and Germany.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations Vol. 35(3) pp 307-319.

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