Writing Excuses 12.18: Gendered Dialect, with J. R. Johansson
Key Points: Men and women have different motivations in communication. Women, in general, seek connections, while men seek status. Women use rapport talk, while men use report talk. Men tend to goal-oriented communications, while women are building bonds. When women join other women, the first comment is likely to be a compliment. With men, the first thing is likely to be a joking insult. Relations versus dominance. Most of this is socialization. Be aware that the exceptions are as interesting as the rules! Broad spectrum of engagement. When a woman says, “This is what happened to me,” they are looking for empathy, sympathy, where a man is likely to answer, “Let me fix that for you.” Women often apologize, are overly polite. They use equivocating, and self-deprecation. To learn the other side, read work written by and for that gender. Get someone to flag your writing. “Spend more time listening than you spend talking.”
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 18.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Gendered Dialect, with J. R. Johansson.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Susan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Susan] I’m Susan.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Howard] We are joined by special guest J. R.… Who I know as Jenn Johansson.
[J. R.] Hi. Thanks for having me.
[Mary] We’re also joined by a different special guest.
[Howard] We are also joined by our guest host, who’ll be with us twice more through Season 12, Susan Chang. Susan…
[Howard] Tell us about yourself.
[Susan] Okay. I’m Susan Chang, and I am a Senior Editor at Tor Books, where I work on the Starscape middle grade and Tor teen young adult books. I’m happy to be here.
[Howard] Today, we are talking about gendered dialogue and I am super excited to only have two male voices on the podcast because I don’t know very much about this. Mary, save me.
[Mary] Well, actually, I’m going to turn this over to J. R. since she pitched it. One of the things that we were talking about before hand was the Genderlect theory. So why don’t you explain that to the audience, and then we can use that as our jumping off place?
[J. R.] Okay. So the Genderlect theory is a theory by Deborah Tannen. It really talks about, like, that everything about the way that men and women communicate boils down to the motivations behind what they’re seeking from communication. Now I’ll preface this by saying this is incredibly generalized, obviously, like any time you’re talking about an entire gender. It’s not going to apply to everyone. But it does kind of have an overall insight into the way that people communicate with each other. Which I think is really useful in writing. So women, in general, seek connections, and men seek status. It influences the style of communication, it influences the language that we use. So for just a basic example, they say that women use rapport talk and men use report talk. So like rapport, obviously, you’re trying to like create a bond and find a way of connecting with people. So for example, if a woman joins a group of women, often the first thing anyone says to her is a compliment. That is very, very common. With men, the first thing, like if a man is wearing let’s say a sports jersey, a man might first thing razz that team, like kind of establishing a little bit the dominance. They use joking, like criticism or joking insults, as a way of communicating, which also establishes like who’s in charge and somebody is taking control of this conversation in this group.
[Mary] This explains so much about the way… The reason that I tease Howard all the time. Because I’m establishing dominance over him…
[Mary] As a man.
[Dan] That’s also the reason I pee on Howard sometimes.
[Howard] This is going to go so poorly for me.
[Mary] So one of the things that I think is really fascinating about this is that it… This is certainly behavior that I have seen. But it’s interesting, particularly as a science fiction and fantasy author, how much of this is due to being socialized into that form of behavior… Dialogue. So I’m going to use an example, which is actually a regional variation, but it… I’ve been told that it’s also… That this also represents some feminine stuff, too. When I’m talking to my husband… So I am from the South, my husband is from Hawaii. Theoretically, we’re both from the United States, but we approach some things very differently. If I’m asking for something, I’m very likely to say, “Can you get the box…” Err, not, “Can you get the box down from the counter?” I’ll be much more likely to say, “The shelf is too high.” He hears that as being passive-aggressive, whereas I hear it as I’m trying to not put you in a position of needing to say “No.” When he says, “Can you get the box down?” I am like, “Oh, M. G., this must be very urgent.”
[Howard] This is fascinating, because the exceptions are, to me, every bit as interesting as the rule. My son… I’ve got a 19-year-old son who’s high functioning autistic. He does not like being asked… He does not like being told, “Hey, today’s your dish day,” as a reminder. He likes being told, “Son, I need you to do your dishes now.” Because that is very explicit, and now he knows what needs to be done. Whereas with the other kids in the house, they like just having the reminder. They don’t like having Dad tell them what they must do.
[Mary] One of the things that I was going to say about this… And this is again the exception. The difference between Rob and I is the way we were socialized. Which is one of the things that when we’re looking at this gendered language, I think that we are looking a little bit at the way people are socialized and also that there’s this big spectrum of how people actually engage with that.
[J. R.] Absolutely. I think it’s very much about how you’re socialized. Like I think that’s probably the core of all of it. I think that it’s really interesting because… When it… And it… You see it everywhere. It is one of the most common forces of conflict in any relationship. Specifically men and women relationships, is that a man, when communicating, is goal-oriented, which goes down to seeking status again, and a woman is more focused on the connections. So like you often hear women who are like talking to their husbands or their significant others, and they’re like, “This is what happened to me.” They’re looking for an emotional connection. They’re looking for empathy. They’re looking for somebody to sympathize with what they’ve been through, and the men are like, “I want to solve this problem for you. Let me fix it.” You see that a lot…
[Howard] Oh, and they’ll interrupt in order to do that.
[J. R.] That does happen sometimes.
[Susan] You definitely see this in the professional world. I think that’s the reason why… One of the reasons why there’s so many more men on the upper tiers. I noticed that a lot of times women just apologize. Like, “I’m sorry, but can I say this?” It’s all very sort of asking permission and being very polite. I was just… Not to be rude, just scrolling through my phone just now because this morning I had read this… I had actually just skimmed it, so I’m going to just vaguely just see if anybody recognizes it. There’s an article in Buzzfeed or something, like at HuffPost, some one of those, which I couldn’t find, but it was about women being so polite that they get killed. It was because of my favo… It was a discussion of My Favorite Murder, which is a podcast in which women talk about their favorite murders. There are two ladies. I haven’t heard it myself, but a colleague is a big fan, and she was telling me about it. But basically, their point is that if you’re ever… Don’t be polite enough where somebody could murder you.
[J. R.] That sounds like a good rule of thumb.
[Howard] Actually, that sounds like fantastic life advice. Part of what we… I say part of. The whole point of having this sort of discussion here on Writing Excuses is that when we have our characters speak to each other, we want them to sound genuine. We want them to sound like they would really sound. We want the way they talk to communicate their story to us, without us having to say where they were raised or what their background is. We want that to be innate. How do we make that happen with this gendered dialects?
[J. R.] I think that you want them to be authentic, you also want them to stand out. I think it’s important… You can make… If you want to make a very charismatic character, one of the best ways to do that is to have them… Some people, and we all probably know one, when they enter a group, they’re automatically able to immediately sense the dynamics of that group and match it. They conform to that group. They communicate in a way that fits with that group. Those are the people that like you hear… The first thing people say about them is “I love that guy. He’s so cool. Like, he’s great.” It’s because… And he’ll be different sometimes in different groups, but it just is the way that they learned to conform. So I think it’s important to use that in a way to fit your character. I think another way is you can easily make an outcast by someone who doesn’t conform to the norms of the group that he is associating with. Or she is associating with. It’s that kind of the way that they use that interaction and play against or with can really tell you a lot about your characters.
[Howard] Oh. Go ahead.
[Mary] I was just going to… Listen to me. I am going to share with you…
[Mary] Did you hear the thing that I did? I was just going to…? There’s a plug-in for Gmail called Just Not Sorry, which goes through and flags things for you that are equivocating statements, that are things that women tend to do. Like, “I think that this might be a thing that you might be interested in” instead of “This plug-in is useful.” So I’m going to say that one of the things as an exercise that you might try is to take some of your character dialogue and throw it into this plug-in to see if it’s coming up as… To see what it flags. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, look at all of the equivocating I’m doing.” This is not to say that all of your women need to be equivocating. In fact, this is something that we try to train out of ourselves. But if you have a character who is stereotypically feminine, who is fitting into that feminine mode, recognize that they are going to want to equivocate a little bit more. Just as an example. In the Regency, women didn’t drink red wine. All of the research that I read was written by men that said that it was because it was considered too strong for them. The first time I put on one of the little white Regency dresses, I was like, “Oh, no, no, no. That is not why…”
[Mary] “They were not drinking red wine. That is not at all why.” But I can easily imagine a woman in the Regency going, “Oh, no, that’s too strong for me,” rather than, “Get that away from my dress.”
[Howard] We’ll link to Just Not Sorry in the liner notes. The other thing we’re going to link to in the liner notes is the book of the week. Jenn, I think you’ve got one of those for us?
[J. R.] I do. It’s my most recent book. It comes out… It came out in October. It’s called The Row. It is a YA contemporary mystery, I guess I would say. Mystery thriller. It’s about a girl whose dad is on death row in Texas. He has been for the last 11 years. Most of her life. He was convicted of killing three women. He’s an infamous serial killer in Texas. He’s always claimed his innocence. At the beginning of the book, he loses his final appeal and is scheduled to be executed in 28 days. She wants to find the truth for that happens.
[Mary] That sounds awesome.
[J. R.] Thank you.
[Dan] All right. I have a question that I want to ask. So here we go. When I was working on Bluescreen, which has a female protagonist and a whole group of female friends are the main characters, I had my assistant read through it. One of the things that she flagged back to me was that the characters were not self-deprecating enough. One of the things that Jenn mentioned at the beginning is that men tend to razz each other. What my assistant pointed out to me is that women have a strong tendency to razz themselves. I have been watching how my wife talks, my daughter talks when she’s in a group of all her friends, and they do. There’s a lot of “Oh, well, I’m terrible at that.” A lot of self-deprecation. That is hard for me to write.
[Susan] Actually, didn’t Amy Schumer have a sketch in her first season that was totally about where a group of women meet up in Manhattan for lunch and they’re all dressed to the nines and they’re like, “Oh, my God. I look so fat today.” And like, “Oh, no, you’re so great. Like my head’s going to fall off.” Just like the most random, like violent things…
[Susan] Really, not even self-deprecating, but that was just kind of getting that point across, that you kind of always have to. I don’t know why this is. It’s definitely been internalized. I find myself doing it.
[Mary] I think that we’re trained to appear humble and that one of the ways we do that is to deny the things that we know that we’re good at. The other is fishing for compliments to reinforce the self-esteem that has been kind of beaten out of us.
[J. R.] And it plays into the group dynamics, too. It allows other people to come in and compliment you, which is really the way that women communicate. It’s like I leave an opening and you come in and then we are friends.
[Mary] By the way…
[J. R.] It’s a…
[Mary] I really like the way your nail polish goes with your shirt.
[J. R.] Thank you. Thank you very much.
[Howard] I love the way you guys are steering this podcast…
[J. R.] I didn’t even self-deprecate myself.
[Howard] Without any help from me. I am adoring that.
[Dan] So it’s… So I guess to follow up and actually ask a question, and maybe this is a stupid question. What kind of advice can we give for people who… For whom a particular mode of communication is incredibly unfamiliar or uncomfortable? Like, how can I write as a man a bunch of women bagging on themselves? How can a woman more easily write a bunch of men telling each other how awful they are?
[Mary] Read… I would say one thing that you can do is read… For learning how to write women, is actually read romance. Since that is written by women for women, predominantly. Reading women’s magazines or interviews, also useful. Likewise for women, reading… Honestly reading some things… I learned a lot when I was doing a research for a puppet thing and had to read an urban survivalist magazine.
[Mary] Which was… Although there were advertisements in there for pink guns, most of the stuff was targeted at guys. The quality of language was very different than the things that are appearing in women’s magazines. Even when we’re talking about guns, there is a Southern magazine, Guns and Gardens. Which is… The language and it is very different, even though it’s dealing with a lot of the same topics. So that’s one thing that I think you can do. The other thing is ask someone to read it and flag stuff that seems wrong to them.
[J. R.] I actually had a similar experience to you, Dan. My first book, Insomnia, the first series is all male point of view. I wrote it and then I gave it to a friend’s husband who read it and came back to me and he was like, “So, does the best friend, like sidekick character… Does he… Is he like… Is he in love with the main character?” I was like, “No. No, that’s not what I was going for.” He was like, “Well, he definitely needs to compliment him less, then. Like he’s very…”
[J. R.] “Very complimentary.” He seems very focused on making sure that he knows how much he likes him. So I had to learn to go through and like… He was like, “He should be insulting him much more.”
[J. R.] I had to learn to go through and kind of work on that. I think it’s hard. I think we should all try. Like, try and write a character from their point of view that is not your gender. It’s challenging. It is hard. But I do think as a woman, I’ve read women who are to self-deprecating.
[J. R.] Like it gets annoying, if that’s all they’re focused on. It’s hard for me to think very well of them when they’re constantly telling me all the things that are terrible about themselves. So I think there’s a very fine line to walk. I think that your recommendations for reading writing that is geared toward… Written by and for that gender can be very helpful.
[Howard] I’ve found that… And this is just a good life skill. Spend more time listening than you spend talking. I don’t mean spend more time not talking than you spend talking. Actually listen. Listen to the conversation that you are sitting as part of. Go someplace, coffee shop or wherever, and listen to the conversations around you. Not that you’re eavesdropping.
[J. R.] [Inaudible dropping]
[Howard] Not that…
[Howard] But… Well, it’s not that I’m trying together secrets about you, I’m trying together secrets about the way you talk. That works.
[J. R.] [Inaudible by yourself]
[Dan] But be careful, if you write YA and you want to know how teen girls talk to each other and you’re an adult male…
[Howard] Don’t tell this joke. Don’t.
[Howard] This is not going to go to a good place.
[Dan] Somebody gave this advice on a panel last year, like, “Go hang around teenage girls.” No. Don’t go hang out around teenage girls.
[Howard] Okay. We are out of time. Susan, do you have a writing prompt for us?
[Mary] I actually…
[Howard] No, Jenn has the writing prompt for us.
[J. R.] I do. I have a writing prompt for you.
[I’m so sorry, I don’t.] [Laughter] [We got you covered. Go to it.]
[J. R.] Okay. So, I think it’s very, frequently when you see a matriarchy represented in fantasy, sci-fi, any of those type situations… It’s really just a patriarchy with women in all of the roles. So write a scene with a matriarchy that has them communicating and dealing with each other in a little more of a female fashion. See how that goes.
[Howard] Outstanding. Fair listener, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.