12.18: Gendered Dialect, with J.R. Johansson

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary, and Dan, with guest-host Susan Chang, and special guest J.R. Johannsen

J.R. Johannson joined Howard, Mary, Dan, and guest-host Susan Chang at LTUE 2017 for a discussion of gendered dialect.

We lead with a quick introduction to the Genderlect theory, by Deborah Tannen, which uses a very broad brush to describe key differences between the ways men and women in western societies communicate. We then explore the way some of the individual voices we’re familiar with have been influenced through gender role, cultural socialization, and even neuroatypicality.

Our goal in this discussion is to learn to write dialog which serves our stories and our characters, and  to do so in a way that both leverages and defies the existing stereotypes.

Liner Notes:


Use the concepts of  gendered dialect to write a scene set among members of a matriarchy.

The Row, by J.R. Johannsen

28 thoughts on “12.18: Gendered Dialect, with J.R. Johansson”

  1. The southern indirect communication Mary was talking about has a word in German, because of course it does. It’s call “Appell”. It comes from the French “appel” from which also the English word “appeal” derives from. The is a whole linguistic model around this, called the “Four-side model” by Friedemann Schulz von Thun.

    Mit freundlichen Grüßen

  2. I found this episode particularly interesting!
    I’d love more episodes digging into how conversations can work

  3. I really enjoyed this episode. For related listening, check out this discussion between Deborah Tannen and Ezra Klein on “gendered speech”: http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/panoply/the-ezra-klein-show/e/deborah-tannen-on-gendered-speech-hillary-clinton-donald-trump-48110994 (this contains some discussion of politics which mostly occurs in the latter portion of the episode)
    In addition to covering gendered speech, Tannen also discusses regional differences and how New Yorkers converse differently from Californians (and are sometimes perceived as “rude” as a result).

    For those who have more interest in the subject of “genderlect theory” as discussed in this episode, I recommend reading Deborah Tannen’s book, “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” (1990). It feels like sort of a seminal book on the subject which provides a bit more discussion of sociolinguistics with a lot of examples, which I think a lot of people (not just writers!) might find helpful.

  4. This episode was so extremely helpful, I think this is why I have a problem with lagging through a female protagonist’s dialogue while still sounding genuine. How do I keep her pacing equal to an MC while staying true to the rapport dynamic?

    I love the MFM podcast shoutout. If you liked that advice, and want to hear more about the balance between politeness and putting oneself in dangerous situations, The Gift of Fear is brilliant for understanding that thought process.

    Dan’s transition from “I have a question that I want to ask” to “So, I guess, to follow up and ask a question– and maybe this is a stupid question…” definitely shows he’s been working on it; the depreciation is sounding great.

  5. If you want to find out how teenagers talk, apply to be a substitute teacher. Schools will love you, you get a bit of cash flow with your research, and you’ll never get the kids to stop talking. Source: am currently at a school subbing. (On break right now.)

  6. Question: In a long-extant matriarchy, would women’s speech patterns be more goal and status oriented and less rapport and relationship oriented? Would males, as the less overtly powerful gender, develop more rapport oriented speech patterns as a means of creating connections through which to achieve goals they could not achieve on their own?

    I’d also like to mention that I found this podcast just a couple weeks ago, and I am now totally addicted to it! Many thanks to all of you for providing this incredible resource for aspiring writers. I am happy to report that I have not only been binge listening to episodes, but I have also have started spending more time actually writing. Thank you!

    1. Two answers:
      1) It’s really difficult to say, since we don’t have good examples to draw from.
      2) If you’re writing it, and you want to sell your Matriarchy to the reader, you’re probably better served by not making them sound like powerful men sound.

      1. Thank you, Howard,

        You make a very good point… regardless of what would really happen, readers in the here and now would still expect women and men to have certain speech patterns, and to stray from those patterns would be jarring. At least if not handled more deftly than what I am currently able to do. (Did you see my self deprecation there?) Thanks, again, I appreciate the response!

    2. Just wanted to remark on the concept of “goal/status-oriented” vs “rapport/relationship-oriented” : The idea that a matriarchal society would lead to women being more goal-oriented and men being more relationship-oriented is embedded with the assumption that goal-oriented people are inherently “better” at getting things done than people who are rapport-oriented. And that seems like an assumption that’s worth challenging.

      To use a sports analogy, a leadership (coach) that places more value on goals/status might focus more on elevating and emphasizing the strengths of a particular star player, whereas an approach that is more rapport/relationship focused could lead to less focus on one or two stars but better team chemistry as a result. Is the status/goal-oriented approach strictly “better” than one based on relationship/rapport? It seems to me that there could be plenty of contexts where having good team chemistry is more important than having a “star player.”

      In fact, there’s an argument to be made that in the context of a structure that values rapport/relationships (e.g. a hypothetical matriarchy), a goal-oriented “star player” would find their attempts to achieve those personal goals stymied when they failed to follow the rapport-based values structure of that society, much in the same way that people who exhibit rapport/relationship-oriented behavior tend to have trouble ascending in power structures that don’t recognize the value of that approach.

      1. I’m not sure that’s a necessary assumption.

        There’s nothing magical about “male” and “female”, these are social characteristics, driven by social roles. If you put women in the traditional male social role and vice versa, then you’ll also swap the social characteristics.

    3. I recall reading about a study indicating that when people of the same gender are in power-asymmetric situations, e.g., male prisoners and their male guards, the people in the subordinate status took on “more female” speech patterns. I tried to look up this study but my google-fu is failing me.

      The female characters in Foz Meadows’s novel An Accident of Stars, even members of the nobility, have astonishingly blunt speech patterns. Perhaps this is because the story is set in a matriarchal society… or perhaps it’s because the author is Australian.

  7. I was so ready to link the “Politeness” article, only to find it was already in the notes! As a listener of MFM and other true crime podcasts, it’s difficult to articulate the intellectual gap between “here’s a societal issue that contributes to violent crime and hurts women,” versus the bone-deep connection of one’s personal experience and hearing intimate retellings of the same issue. Hundreds of retellings. Thousands. There’s a sense of solidarity and hard-won vindication in sharing stories like Mary Vincent’s, as well as the ones who didn’t survive.

  8. This topic was spot on! My wife is always fishing for compliments like that. I’ve noticed too that women tend to communicate by nonverbal cues and indirect references to their needs or worries and judge others’ affection and friendship by how well they pick up on it and are “thoughtful” or complimentary.
    I’ve also noticed that men tend to have an efficiency issue where they try to say as little as possible, and perhaps even interrupt others to cut to the point.
    This is also true of greetings where guys might nod heads–and if they’re feeling more talkative they might add “‘tsup?” without expecting or giving an answer.
    At work, when men call me, they get straight to the point. Women will waste a lot of time on “Hi. How are you?” Etc. Sometimes they seem offended when I answer: “I’m fine, thanks. How can I help you?” Instead of asking how they are too. To avoid this, I make sure to answer: “[my name] here, how can I help you?” so there’s no wiggle room for extra tangents or pointless pleasantries. ( We all know that the answer is “fine” or “good” whether it really is or not.–although, in Russia, they will tell you the truth…)

    Men also tend to always size each other up regardless of the setting: Am I taller, stronger, smarter than the other guy? Could I beat them in a fight? It is mostly done semi-unconsciously and wI think the first few momens upond meeting. They also might find ways to discretely demonstrate their superiority.
    Men also build comrade by simply doing things together. They don’t have to talk–or if they do it’s either jokingly harassing each other or highly technical and impersonal discussions of sports, politics, cars, games, etc. –Not about vulnerable topics like themselves or relationships, etc.

    What was I saying about men having an efficiency issue…?

  9. Women build bridges, men fix them? Well… sort of. In this episode, Susan Chang and J. R. Johannson joined Dan, Howard, and Mary to talk about gender differences in communication, and how understanding those differences can help you write better dialogue. And right now, the transcript is available in the archives or over here


    for your reading pleasure.

  10. You describe this as a pattern in “western society”, but I think it might be more specifically American than you think. It’s at least much less pronounced in England, in my experience.

    1. I was thinking the same thing!

      Being from Finland, a Nordic country, it feels very strange when Americans give women compliments all the time (both men and women seem to do that). Putting the focus on looks feels off to us, i.e. it’s probably more an American thing than a western one,. Here you seldom give compliments to people you don’t know, and if you do it is much more significant.

  11. Loved the topic of this cast. I had the same thought as Donna. Without the thousands of years of socialization to be deferential and not seem too smart/ambitious/etc., women’s communication would be very different. It would be fascinating to try exploring a society where the rapport-based communication was seen as superior so that’s why women us it.

    I recently discovered the podcast and I’ve been listening to the back catalog. I’ve barely written a word of fiction in 15 years because of depression and because I convinced myself that I just wasn’t a creative writer. I’m still trying to figure out how to get past that wall from planning to writing. This podcast has helped so much. Getting to see how writers actually move from idea, through what I call in my visual art “the ugly phase”, to a final story is like getting to watch a painter create her painting layer by layer. I understand now that the outline and first draft are just those first few layers that I need to put down to get started, even if the untrained viewer can’t see them in the final painting.

  12. Wasn’t sure what to expect from the title of this podcast, but really enjoyed the content. One thing though: Instead of either/or, I’m picturing genderlect as a bell curve, with one end being masculine, and the other feminine. As in real life, where a character falls on the bell curve will vary depending on who they are speaking with, the scene context, and author’s goal for that character. A Queen marching an army into battle will sound much more masculine for that scene than maybe she would if counseling a young woman on matters of the heart. A female kitchen cook barking out orders in the same manner would seem ridiculously overbearing. All of these are appropriate, if used intentionally to establish character.

    Genderlect could also be used to create conflict of the fish out of water variety. A character employing the wrong genderlect at the wrong time could easily( and hilariously) give offense without knowing why.

    1. Hmm. Having watched many (non-fiction, non-reality-TV) cookign shows I’ve noticed that the command tone and the immediate “Yes Chef” in a high-rank kitchen actually does sound closer to your Queen example (with chefs of both genders). Check out the excellent “Chef’s Table” series on Netflix for some examples and counter-examples. But then perhaps that’s also the point…

  13. I don’t have social media so sorry for posting here but I tried to download season 10 episode 2 but when I pressed the “download” it did not download I am using a kindle fire

  14. At my University, there is a poster about gender bias. The gist of it is:

    A father and his son are in a car accident. The father is killed immediately and the son is taken to hospital. The surgeon looks at the boy and says “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.”

    It took me days to work out the answer, the surgeon is the mother.

    When I told this story to my wife, she got angry and said “That’s not fair, that’s *not how women speak.*”

    Ever since then, I’ve been trying to hear the difference between male and female dialogue. This podcast really helped.

  15. My wife was amused when I told her about the episode. As a new teacher in a school district she saw a lot of female-tone that was also very positional – the two are not exclusive. The example she gave was “Oh, you look tired today, are you alright?” which really meant “1) You’re one of those science-y women who don’t wear makeup, you don’t fit in here. and 2) Are you sure you can cut in here in this highly-regarded district? (with the implied rivalry of new vs established.”

  16. I think there’s a flaw in the logic of making a matriarchal society more feminine. Matriarchal societies aren’t likely to just be our concept of the feminine in a made up world and the feminine as we see it having social dominance over the masculine. What would be considered masculine or feminine will, like in a real culture, be based on the history and values of that culture.

    An Amazon-like culture, for example, is likely to value battle prowess and the physical strength of some sort. There may even be a hierarchy of the types of battle prowess that are valued. A culture that more based on traditional feminine virtues by our standards may value feminity as we know it. And many made up matriarchal cultures are likely to be a blend of that spectrum. That’s not to say the idea isn’t a good one, but that it isn’t as cut and dry as the prompt made it seem.

    I loved this episode nonetheless. It’s such an interesting topic and one that doesn’t get covered enough. Thank you guys for covering it on the podcast.

  17. 1. If I try to include more “rapport” diction into the dialogue of my female characters and more “status” diction into the dialogue of my male characters…at what point does that become sexist and/or reinforcing the social norm/status quo?

    2. If I use this type of speech patterns and then have a couple characters stand apart in their diction, can that be an effective tool in characterization?

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