Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Men and Women Communicating -- Romance from a Guy's Perspective Part III

When I was in undergrad at my second college (I transferred twice before getting my B.S.), I took a class called Human Communication. The point of this course was to discuss communication methods commonly used in all aspects of contemporary American life. One of the books we were supposed to read during that semester was called You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Communication.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I can remember learning is that men and women ask for things they want differently. An example from the text: Three boys and three girls were given toys to play with. When a boy wanted a toy that another boy had, he asked for it directly. When a girl wanted a toy another girl had, she tried to use the third girl as a way around asking directly (e.g. Jenny telling Sarah that Erika wants to play with the doll Sarah has, when it's really Jenny who wants to play with it).

Books like this are worthwhile for two reasons. First and foremost is that it allows male and female writers to get a picture of the different ways men and women communicate inside gender groups and with each other. It's a good resource to have because, let's face it, we're going to default to our standard communication styles. For a man, that tends to be more direct and upfront. For a woman, it's more circumspect and subtle.

Perhaps more interesting than knowing these communication styles is knowing that people will have difficulty understanding if the communication style is not the one they use. Hence why the stereotypical American male is said to not understand subtlety. This is the number one offense I've seen in my scant experience with male romantic characters. They understand the subtlety of the female main characters far better than any real man typically would.

There are, of course, men and women who break the mold. My wife is, in general, a very plain-spoken woman and not prone to subtlety. My friends Casey and Alice* are the same way (a big reason why they're my friends). By contrast, my male friend Gary tends to be more circumspect.

What does this mean for the female writer trying to write a male character or a male writer trying to write a female character?

Pay attention to how men and women typically talk.

A stereotypical guy will tell you up front what he means (unless it's emotional, then he tries to play it off like it's no big deal). A stereotypical girl might speak more in hypotheticals and try to get answers to a question she's not asking. When these two get together, sparks are more likely to fly from him misunderstanding what she's asking rather than any understanding on either part. Especially when it comes to romantic entanglements.

The end result of all this? A guy will say direct things that he doesn't realize are the wrong answer because he doesn't know what the girl's really trying to ask.

Does this mean you have to make all men dense as a brick wall or all women capable of verbal gymnastics? No, of course not. In fact, you might get an interesting story out of flipping communication styles between a man and a woman. However, you the writer do need to pay attention to standard methods of communication when you're writing male and female characters. That's what (I hope) you take away from my rambles.

What are your thoughts on this, dear readers? Agree? Disagree? Want elaboration? Let me know in the comments.


Kelly Lyman said...

Great post! This is so true and I honestly never really gave the gender issue much thought. I always looked at each character and how they may or may not respond to an event, never really taking male/female into mind. I'm also writing YA which I think makes it more difficult for me b/c teenagers are a whole different breed in some ways. Any thoughts on age playing a difference with male/female communication?

Matthew Delman said...

Kelly --

Age definitely plays a role in the differences between male/female communication.

Then again, this also depends on how mature/immature your teen character is. For example -- a 15 year old who's had to help support his or her family for three years isn't going to communicate on the same level as a 15 year old who has a cushy lifestyle.

Gender differences are only one factor to consider in how characters communicate. A big one, but just one.

MeganRebekah said...

I love this series! :)

I'm blessed with a real-life teenage sister who provides all sorts of stories that show the differences between the genders at her age. I'm trying to squeeze in a post on the topic, in between moving and cleaning.

Matthew Delman said...

Megan --

Thanks! I'm kind of surprised by how popular these three posts actually are. Who knew so many folks were looking for a guy's perspective on writing romance?

A primary source is always a good thing to have. It's great your sister is willing to be a guinea pig for your questions about teens.

fairyhedgehog said...

This is a common view but I'm not sure it's supported by research.

In popular belief, women who talk "more like men" (or vice versa) are seen as exceptions rather than as part of the data to be taken into account. In fact, studies such as this one tend to show little difference in the communication styles between men and women.

It may be a useful stereotype to be aware of when writing fiction, just like the dumb blonde or the hot tempered red-head, but I doubt that it has much more basis in fact.

If this sounds stilted it's because I'm feeling irritated and trying not to show it!

Matthew Delman said...

fairy --

Thanks for posting the link to the study! It's interesting to note that the researchers used only men and women over the age of 40 in their study, as opposed to other test groups for the same theories.

Maybe, and this pure postulation as I don't have a psych degree, the communication differences between men and women shrink as each get older because they've become more effective communicators as time goes on.

By this I mean people learn how to say things to get their points across with people who have different styles of communicating.

As I've not done a comprehensive review of the research on this topic, I can't really say.

fairyhedgehog said...

This was just one example.

I think in ordinary life we're affected by confirmation bias - we see what we want or expect to see and treat anything that doesn't fit with our views as an exception.

Just my view!

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

OOh good post, this is so important to remember when writing, I'm trying to make sure all of my male characters ring true at the moment--in that they communicate and sound like actual guys their age. Thanks Matthew!

Natalie said...

Interesting as always Matt. The MC in my current WIP is a 12-year-old boy. It's been interesting to write through his eyes. I grew up with brothers so I think he's taken on a lot of their characteristics.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

These male/female posts are seriously some of my favorites that you've done. I love them. This is such necessary knowledge if we want real and believable characters. Keep 'em coming, Matt! :-)

Joshua McCune said...

Very nice. Observation is oh so critical, not just to writing, but to getting along w/ others. Heck, I might not understand all those crazy women out there, but I usually know how they'll react to an action, even if it makes absolutely no sense to me.

L. T. Host said...

Great post! It's interesting to read this, actually, because I too often tend to treat other people as... other people, without allowing for gender or biology causing differences in the ways they communicate. It is important to understand the psychology!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm mostly in favor of treating characters as I would treat anyone - the sum total of who they are being more important than their gender. Still, silly not to take that into account as one of the (possibly strong) factors.

My true question about male characters in romance: since you want to have richly layered characters, with deep motivations (for your MC), what do you do with a guy who's kinda on the clueless side? :)

That's only partly tongue-in-cheek. I think it's a very interesting question how you portray the conflict of your character, when sometimes they aren't consciously aware of the conflict themselves?