Indian Courtship and the Mobile Phone

February 2007 - Research by doctoral student Carolyn Wei in the University of Washington's department of technical communication has found that although mobile phones have long been part of the Indian business community, they are playing an increasingly indispensable role in young peoples' personal relationships. Most previous research into the influence of cell phones on youth culture has taken place in the West. Studies conducted elsewhere tend to focus on economic use.

The study was conducted in summer 2006 in Bangalore, a rapidly expanding city of 6.1 million that is experiencing globalization and modernization. The study involved 20 participants aged from 18 to 30 years. Financially stable, most had lived in Bangalore for less than two years and spoke English and Hindi but none of the local languages. More than half worked the graveyard shift because they provided technical support for daytime workers in North America.

Carolyn Wei said:

"The people I studied were in this 24/7 environment and they were always on the go. Many were involved in long-distance relationships with someone working or studying in another city. The phone provided couples with a 'perpetual virtual connection'. For people working long hours and commuting in Bangalore's heavy traffic, the mobile phone was even crucial for maintaining relationships with people in the same city."

Most participants considered arranged marriage as an option for finding a partner. Mobile phones helped bridge modern and traditional cultural values, being used to get to know a partner vetted and approved by parents, or influencing the trend toward increased premarital contact.

Carolyn Wei commented:

"The mobile phone makes it a little easier to facilitate an arranged marriage at a distance."

The study highlighted other situations where mobile phones played a role in romance:

  • In arranged marriages - A young man given time alone with a prospective bride had one question: "What is your mobile number?"
  • Between working couples - One participant often communicated by phone or text with his wife who also lived in Bangalore. He commented that breaking this connection would be the main reason for being scared if he lost his mobile phone.
  • Traditional etiquette - As Indian mobile phone companies usually bill the caller, ignoring or hanging up on a girlfriend and then returning the call is cited as "a modern instance of picking up the tab".
  • Domestic spats - Deliberately ignoring calls as punishment or becoming angry at not being answered. One participant threatened his partner that he would not answer her calls for a month.

The study suggests that owners now take mobile phones as much for granted as wristwatches and eyeglasses. A recent report by market research firm IDC found that there are now nearly 150 million cell phone subscribers in India and more than two thirds of the country's phones are mobile.

Beth Kolko, an associate professor in the department of technical communication commented:

"What Carolyn has done it take this really interesting element of youth culture - courtship - and identified how mobile phones interact with those pre-existing patterns of interaction. Technology doesn't trump culture, it doesn't change culture on its own, but it is a force that pushes against cultural patterns."