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?) 


  1. Loved those videos!

    I'm not sure my old job as a visual merchandiser helped with my writing, but it certainly helped me learn to deal with subjective criticism. For instance, I once did a display that required merchandise from every department in the (huge) department store to be assembled into one cohesive statement. The main feature had to be our new line of celadon home accessories. I made a rather outstanding display, if I do say so myself. However, when the store manager saw it the next day, she rubbed her chin and said, "You know, I just don't like green." So down it came, to be replaced with non-green merchandise. Except the GREEN celadon stuff. Nothing I could do about that.

  2. thanks for a great post! I loved learning about how men and women communicate - maybe someday I'll actually UNDERSTAND what men are really talking about. Maybe.

  3. Great post Lynne! Dialogue can be so tough -- I will definitely be more aware of this as I revise my wip. Love the blabbing baby too -- I think this is what my kids hear when I'm talking sometimes.


  4. Such an interesting post, and so true! I'm always doing "research" when traipsing through my days. I love observing at the mall, grocery store, waiting rooms...anywhere. I find that tone says so much, and with men it's often hard to read.

  5. Maybe that did help, Vonna-- it does sound like some of that "not for me" editor feedback on a good story.

    Oh Melissa, you're so ambitious! How many books are out there about male/female communication, and people are still writing them.

    Chris, I hadn't thought of that before, but now I'm worried. I bet we do sound like that to our kids.

    Amanda, don't we get great ideas for dialogue from listening to everyone? Tone does make a huge difference; one reason emails are often misunderstood, since you may be typing it with one tone in mind but the reader sees the words a different way.

    Thanks for the comments, people!

  6. Being a school librarian DEFINITELY helps me as a writer. I'm swimming in good reads and I keep up with what's going on in the library and pub community.

    Works for me.

  7. Jenny, I hadn't even thought of that, but yeah, you librarians know so much about the new books, what people are reading, and what's new in the publishing world. An advantage for sure!

  8. What an interesting post - and great examples. Such a good point also about using what you know from your day job. I've worked as a medical journalist for many years. Not only do I have an extensive knowledge of diseases and injuries, I can spot when writers don't quite understand the way doctors talk and think. Which can be useful ;)

  9. Thanks, Roz! That does sound like some great experience. I bet you want to yell at almost every medical show on TV! I've done a lot of interpreting in medical settings that helps me spot dialog or settings that don't seem right in hospital scenes I've read. (Like those abundant white coats that people can grab from a closet and pretend to be doctors.)

    Hmm, I should probably get going on that follow-up blog post I meant to write about this...

  10. Hey, I just found your post through Twitter.

    I work with kids and one of my pets hates - and something I try so hard not to do in my writing - is children mis-represented. Children might think differently to adults, but so often they are not given enough credit. They are people, and often they are not characterised so.

  11. Thanks, Astrid, for visiting the blog, and to Roz for linking to the post on Twitter.

    That is annoying, isn't it, when the kids seem completely unreal in the story? They are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. What an advantage working with them gives you, so you can draw from all that experience to write an authentic character. I bet you pick up some great dialog too!

  12. Interesting post. I work as an advertising copywriter by day, and although it is a "creative" job-- selling burgers and insurance can get very disheartening. On the bright side, I get to use my skills as a writer every day, and that keeps me sharp for my fiction.

    Also,when writing ads, brevity helps, which is an asset to query letters, synopses and some prose.

    Nice blog you have.

  13. Thanks, Ron! Copywriters seem to have great skills in using strong word choices too--in that small space you have to work with, you have to pick just the right words to make the product look enticing.That's a skill you can use in all your writing.