Monday, October 11, 2010

Dude Talks Like a Lady

I know you writers--ideally you'd stay home all day without letting things like pesky day jobs get in the way of your creative genius, right? But think about what you know or what you've learned because of your day jobs. Anything that helps with your writing?

As a sign language interpreter, I'm in one of the rare jobs that allows me to work in completely different settings each day. Where else can you go from a doctor appointment to a business meeting to a college class to rehab all in the same week? The same day, even. I mean, unless you're a doctor who has a meeting and perhaps a graduate school class and a drinking problem. 

I'm not going to run home after an assignment and write any deaf clients into a novel (I promise), but having access to so many different places gives me a broad vocabulary and knowledge about what those settings look like. And it helps me catch dialogue in a manuscript that doesn't ring true, because I have to be aware of how deaf clients want me to sound when it's my voice delivering their message. I'm constantly thinking, "How would this person sound if he were saying this with his own voice instead of with his hands?"

A few days ago I saw this post on Tracy Marchini's blog about differences in male and female speech. Great information about writing realistic dialogue for male and female characters. When reading it I thought, "Hey, I forgot that I knew that!" The research she cited like A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication: Essential Readings included information that I've picked up in interpreting workshops, so it's the kind of knowledge I've been using forever without consciously thinking about how it applies to my writing. 

To put it simply, when I'm interpreting for a man, I don't want to sound like a girl. I know, the others in the conversation or the audience hear a female voice, but I try to match my tone and word choice to the speaker. Maybe my own word for something that's great would be "awesome," but that would be a weird choice if I'm interpreting for a 90-year-old. If the speaker is a male, I try to avoid saying things in ways that are associated with female speech. We can do the same in our writing.

For example, women tend to use more "qualifiers" when speaking, like "kind of," "I think," "maybe," and "tend to," like I just used. So I watch for those when writing dialogue. In my own work-in-progress, a male character said something like this when asked about taking a year off from college:

"No, it wasn't really planned, but my dad lost his job, so it's been kinda hard. I came home to work and help them out a little before going back to school."

Okay, now quit being a girl. 

That's been revised to "I didn't plan to leave, but my dad lost his job."

Now, I shouldn't have to qualify this but I will. ('Cause I'm a girl? Maybe.) Of course no one is saying this is how all women talk or how all men talk. Communication styles vary from person to person and from setting to setting. We know women who speak very directly, without hesitations or qualifiers, and there are men who do say "kinda sorta." This is about patterns that researchers have found when studying how men and women communicate. Like all research, the results don't apply to everyone.

Alrighty then. Here are some other things that are common in female speech, so look for these when you revise your male characters' dialogue. (I'm also constantly editing these out of my emails before sending, because I know my sentences will sound stronger without them.)

  • Tag questions: ending sentences with phrases like "Isn't it?" or "Don't you think?" to elicit a response from others.
  • Intensifiers, like "so," "very," and "really." It might seem like "really" adds emphasis, but often it makes a statement weaker.
  • Hesitations: "Okay," and "Well," for example, within the sentence.
  • Questioning statements: Asking someone "Could you put that down?" instead of saying, "Put that down." 
  • Inclusive language, like "Let's" and "We should."

In addition to the article cited at the beginning of the post, I found more information in this fascinating article by Elizabeth F. Morgan, about what she discovered about her own use of "powerless language" when interpreting for a deaf businessman. Although it's meant as an article for interpreters, I think it's a great resource for writers, too. There's even a handy-dandy chart with examples of language that sounds masculine or feminine. 

One important point Tracy Marchini brought up in her post was that there's a difference in written dialogue and real-life speech. Women use more "encouraging speech" to keep the conversation going and affirm that they're listening, but you don't want to clutter up your written dialogue with utterances like "Mm-hmm," and "I see," even if we do that in real life; that would be boring for the reader.  

On another note, the research can explain some miscommunications between men and women. While men see a question as a request for information, women use questions as a way to keep the conversation going. Ever heard a woman complain about her husband or boyfriend telling her how to solve her problem, when she just wants to vent? 

Here's how a girlfriend might answer our question if we're complaining about a co-worker who has wronged us and deserves to perish in a rabid squirrel attack:

"How could she do that?"
"I know, seriously? I cannot believe her."

And here's how a guy answers the same question:

"How could she do that?"
"Here's what you should do..."

Yeah, that's annoying. But we've confused them by asking a question we don't expect them to answer with instructions.

I'd like to write more about day jobs, but since this post is getting long I'll save that for later. But tell us in the comments how your day job benefits you as a writer (besides the paycheck), and I'll include some of those in the next post. And tell us what you think about the male/female communication styles-- are there other things you've noticed that I didn't mention here, and what have you seen in your own work when writing dialogue?

I won't mind if you don't edit out your qualifiers in your comments, either. Really.

(Whether these differences are learned or inborn is a whole 'nother discussion, one I won't get into here. What do you think, loquacious baby?)