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Monday, July 26, 2010

When it Comes to Writing Dialogue, "Women are From Venus, Men are From Bars"

Men talk funny. They say stuff like, "Do these pants make my butt look big?" I mean, really, would you ever hear a woman say anything as weird as that? Fiction writers love hearing that sort of thing, because men and women talk differently, and it takes a tuned ear (or a crash course in Gender Communication Studies) when writing dialogue that captures those differences.

I frequently hear men say, "I can't write good women's dialogue." Maybe that's because they're too busy looking at their butts in the mirror.  More likely, they think that women are from Venus, or some such Oprah-fired crappity crap. Women aren't from Venus! We're from the same place men are from, only the toilets are cleaner.

But yes, there are gender differences in the way men and women communicate. Most of these dialogue tips are based in solid research. Others I've made up. All are true.

1. Men interrupt more.

Whenever I say this in male company, someone makes a point of interrupting me the next time I open my mouth. I will give money to the first man who does NOT do this, as it would suggest they are undergoing a self-evaluation to determine if they, indeed, fit the pattern. If that sensitive male has all his gender equipment intact, then yes, he indeed will fit the pattern.

2. Men use less words.

Ask me if I want a sandwich. Go ahead. I'll wait.

If you're a woman, you probably said, "Would you like a sandwich?" If you're a man, you probably made a gun with your hand, pointed the index finger at me, and said, "Sandwich?" This word-quantity difference is neither good nor bad, unless, that is, you're stuck on an airplane with "loud talking cell phone woman." Then it's bad.

3. Men call 'em like they see 'em. Women seek agreement.

A man says, "I'm disappointed." A woman says, "I'm disappointed, aren't you?"
A man says, "It stinks in here." A woman says "Do you smell that?"
A man says, "Do these pants make my butt look big?" A woman says, "I am secure in the way I look, and don't need constant reassurance from my emotionally stunted spouse."

Not really.

4. Men seek status; Women seek intimacy.

A man says, "In order to assert my dominant status, allow me open that door for you." A woman says, "And then will you hold me until I fall asleep?"

5. Women listen to every word; Men listen selectively.

A woman says, "Hi, Dave. I'm Irene. If you're thining of upgrading your heating and cooling system,you've come to the right place. Since 1981, weve been designing, engineering and installing complete systems in homes and commercial buildings, and we take great pride in our work."

A man responds with says, "And you are?"

6. Men are almost always the heroes in their own stories. When women tell stories, they downplay themselves.

"Hey, did you see me take second place in the egg toss?"
"If I hadn't been your partner, you probably would have come in first."
I wish I had a nickle for every time I've had THAT conversation.

7. Men talk louder, swear more, have more eye contact.

"Holy s**t! Did you see those maracas? F**king AWESOME!"
"Yes, she certainly had nice posture."

(In the above example, if you substitute "chest contact" for "eye contact," the tenet still applies.

There are many more examples of gender differences in communication, and becoming aware of them will help you write keener, more colorful dialogue. Deborah Tannen is the woman given the most credit for studying these gender differences, so google her name, then read what she has to say, because the best writers are also the best students of human behavior.

And if you don't believe me, that's okay, because I'm probably full of doody and don't deserve readers like you, wouldn't you agree?


  1. Hilarious! And it's funny, I was thinking of Deborah Tannen through your whole piece, and felt gratified when you mentioned her at the end. :-)

    These are certainly things I need to remember in my own dialogue writing. And don't remember nearly as often as I should.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Phyl! I like your blog.

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