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Dialogue by Gender

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 13, 2012

You Talking to Me?
By Camille Minichino

Now and then I stray from mysteries and plunge into nonfiction. One of the latest books to set me thinking was “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words say About Us,” by J. Pennebaker, a social psychologist and language expert.

The whole book is fascinating—computer programs that yield insights into our personalities by counting and categorizing words from thousands of emails, letters, and personal ads. I was especially interested in a chapter on how men and women “speak” in books and movies. Which writers have both men and women sounding like men? (Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino.) Both men and women sounding like women? (Gertrude Stein and Woody Allen.) Men sounding like men and women sounding like women? (Sam Shepard and Thornton Wilder.)

I’ve been wondering where I am on the spectrum. Do my female characters use more personal pronouns, as suggested by Pennebaker’s research? Do my male characters shy away from social words, in favor of action words?

My research for dialogue doesn’t involve computers, but rather careful listening to men and women of all ages and walks of life. I query my 35-year-old nephew on his language (“Do you call everyone ‘Dude’?”); my 50-year-old friends (“How much Net Lingo do you use?”); and my 9-year-old granddaughter (“What do you say when you think something is pretty?”)

But numbers appeal to me and I’m thinking about applying Pennebaker’s computational methods to the postings of my students in an online course that I teach for a college in San Francisco. That is, the payroll office and the Help Desk are in San Francisco; I’m at home in a suburb thirty miles away and my students are all over the world.

With an international student body working in cyberspace, I often don’t know the gender of some of my students. At first this was disconcerting. How could I know how to respond to a posting if I didn’t know whether it came from a man or a woman? I’ve had first names such as Jigme, Myint-San, Widya, Lieu, and many more that are unpronounceable. I longed to have a photo, an audio file, or some indication of the student’s gender. Maybe he or she would refer to a wife or husband. Of course in some states, that still wouldn’t be a clue.

Even some “American” names are gender-neutral. Was the Sean I had last term a girl, like the actress Sean Young, or a guy, like the actor Sean Penn? How about Jordan? Lee? Alex? Casey?

Now, with the analytic techniques of computer linguistics, I should be able to apply some simple tests and counting procedures to determine which of my students is male, which female.

But, wait. Does it matter?

Did writers of an earlier day fool anyone by using initials only, or pen names of the opposite gender? Or were readers counting the number of personal pronouns and saying, “Aha! Too many I’s and we’s. I’ll bet this is really a woman.”

Does it help to know the gender perspective of the person who wrote the posting, or the mystery novel? Or does it hinder our ability to absorb the message objectively?

I’m not sure, but I know I’m going to get out my calculator and examine the dialogue as I write my next manuscript.

****        Camille Cover

Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer.

As Camille Minichino, she’s the author of the Periodic Table Mysteries. As Margaret Grace, she writes the Miniature Mysteries, based on her lifelong hobby. As Ada Madison, she writes the academic mysteries featuring Professor Sophie Knowles, college math teacher. “The Probability of Murder” was released March 6.

Soon, every aspect of her life will be a mystery series.


THE HYDROGEN MURDER re-issued on Kindle:




36 Responses to “Dialogue by Gender”

  1. Cool post. I would love to see the book, too. And now I’m also intrigued by your mysteries, as I loved physics and worked under a research scientist turned manager who was a physicist. Best staff meetings ever – he always gave the group (mostly engineers and technical computer geeks, plus me (the cost estimator)) a physics question. . . and we never discussed work, just HR. Over in 5 minutes, but fun meetings.

  2. THis is an interesting subject. Myself, I tend to write like a man, or so I’m told by a few agents. That said, many friends who read my stories often think the protagonist is a woman, because I’m a woman, when clearly they’re androgenic .

  3. I still get “Mr. Odell” correspondence. When I write my dialogue, I’m more concerned first with the profession/back story of the character. Then, I generally go back and cut all the “extra” words from my male characters’ dialogue, especially those vague fillers women seem more prone to use, like “well” and “really.” I also try to make my men speak more in statements rather than questions. Of course, most of my heroes are either cops or some sort of operative, so they’re going to be speaking quite differently. And then, when they’re together with the heroine, they’re going to speak in an entirely different fashion. An editor pointed out, rightly so, that the “colorful” expletives they used with other men would probably be tamped back when speaking to women.


  4. This is a great subject and one I need to pay more attention to in my writing. We know men and women think differently and that should be reflected in their speech. Di, check out Dirk Wyle’s stories too. He’s a scientist turned thriller writer.

  5. cminichino said

    I’ve met Dirk and like his work also, Nancy. There are a number of scientists writing fiction today. Sarah Andrews, Susan Cummins Miller come to mind. I’m happy about that!

  6. This is a fascinating topic, Camille. Because my books are set in countries other than the US, I scanned my chats with men from India and Russia in light of this discussion — a first look indicates they use pronouns quite freely, as well as social words. They also tend to use fewer words in conversation than comparable males from the US who I talk with. Now I’m totally confused 🙂 Guess, like you, I’ll have to stick to listening to characters rather than applying statistical models when writing dialog.

    • cminichino said

      I wonder about the translation, Joyce. Could it be that the Russian translator, e.g., is an American woman? Or are you reading original language? In any case, the international aspect is interesting!

      • Camille – I’m referring to actual conversations I’ve had with men from India and Russia on Facebook or thru email – I do a lot of research preparing for writing books in foreign settings…

        • cminichino said

          I need to check the book again to see if all of Pennebaker’s research was with native speakers of English, or even just Americans. Wouldn’t have thought of checking that!

          • Seems to me there are deep cultural differences – I certainly noticed when I was in India that men expressed affection and emotion towards each other without embarrassment – in the US they might snap a towel or punch affectionately – very different.
            Thanks for this interesting post, Camille – it really go me to thinking,.

    • I’ve actually imported foreign characters into the US – and one of them through Canada first – so I’m working on building dialogue they way they would have learned to think in English in their head. I’ve heard some who come through completely naturally, but I expect my character to not be as polished. I like your idea on chatting via FB. That I can do.

      • So interesting Di – chat can provide a lot of insight, since people abbreviate their English is such creative ways, especially those who don’t speak it as their first language.

  7. P.S. The conversations are in English.

  8. I write male dialogue the way I hear the men in my life speak. I haven’t had any complaints so far. However(!!!), I am a southern woman and I write about southern people. We use extra words as well as syllables. We have a lot of odd phrases that aren’t used up north. Our manner of speech is clearly different. Example: North- “I go home at the end of the day.” South- “I go back to the house at the end of the day.” (home is considered a state of mind not a place). My husband recently saw my editors notes and wanted to know why she wanted my male character from Georgia to sound like a New Yorker? All I could tell him was, she’s from New York. If I want the book published I have to do it her way. What else can I do? It’s frustrating.

  9. Would a man say that? is a phrase I find me asking myself quit eoftern wha tI’m writing. I imagine looking at the breakdown of words used in ‘guy’ speak is quite an eyeopener compared to what the average female author might think they say. Great post!

  10. Also I don’t think guys say “I think” or “I guess” or “I suppose” like women because those would make them sound weak. Women are more conciliatory.

    • Nancy, I think words like “I guess” or “I suppose” can indicate a weaker character of either sex. Take for instance, this snippet of dialog by Agatha Christie:

      Chief Inspector Japp: [in the Wax Museum] Well, I suppose we’d better be leaving. Catch our train.

      Hercule Poirot: Oh, no no no no no no no, no, Chief Inspector. It is still early, and the exhibits here are quite remarkable, n’est-ce pas? To be immortalized in such a fashion unique, ah! quelle honneur. Now I wonder what is around here.
      [he stands beside a model of himself]

  11. Thanks for the info about that book. Sounds like a good thing to add to my arsenal! I, too, write from a male POV quite a bit and think I’m able to channel male-speak. I was raised with brothers and no sisters, so that maybe makes a difference. But that book could only help!

  12. Very interesting post. I’m reminded that the Bronte sisters originally published under male pseudonyms. It would be interesting to run a scan and see if the computer, at least, could figure out that Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights were written by women!

    • Wonderful idea, Andrea! I love it when I read a book and the gender of a character is in doubt for many pages… to me it means the writer has created a character original enough to transcend stereotypes. So while I agree we need to make our dialog realistic when writing from the other sex’s point of view, we also need to allow our characters to grow beyond the “expected.”

    • cminichino said

      Examples from Pennebaker’s analysis of screenplays—Everyone talks like women: Woody Allen and Callie Khouri; everyone talks like men: Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino; men talk like men and women talk like women: David Lynch and Thornton Wilder.

  13. cminichino said

    Thanks for hosting me today, Nancy (it’s still only 10:30 here on the Left Coast!) I’m happy to have met your great readers.

  14. Thank you for your wonderful blog, Camille. It stimulated a great discussion.

  15. Liz said


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