How we (and our characters) talk

So, I finally got around to reading Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. And I do mean, finally. I’ve been intending to read this damn book for years. It’s considered required reading for writers for a reason! It taught me a ton about writing, as I expected it would. But it also taught me about other things, as a good book always will.

Writing should never detract from your life, it should always only add to it. And a good writing book, written by a well-rounded author that walks and breaths in the real world will always tell you about living as much as about writing.

One thing that was discussed in Writing Down The Bones was something that I’ve noticed before, but never really gotten around to thinking about. I have so many other things I think about on a daily basis. This one gets pushed to the back.

It’s about how women talk to other people.

I’m not going to get into how we talk to ourselves. That’s a whole other issue that I, quite frankly, don’t have the energy to pursue right now. So we’ll put that aside for another day.

No, I just want to talk about two things that women do in their speech that I’ve noticed. And while this is something that both Ms. Goldberg and I both noticed I do have to add the disclaimer that this is purely anecdotal. I have no idea if this is something that all women and no men do. It might be that you’re a woman who doesn’t do these things or a man who does. I am a woman, and I do these things. I have almost always heard women do these things and not men. So that’s what I know.

We say ‘I’m sorry’ when we should say ‘thank you’.

We say I’m sorry too much, and often not for the things we should really say sorry for. We really cheapen the word, apologizing for everything.

“I’m sorry you had to wait for me.”

“I’m sorry, I look like such a mess!”

“I’m sorry the house is a disaster.”

“I’m sorry my kid just did that unspeakable thing.”

Stop, just stop. First off, if you’re apologizing for how you or your house looks, let that go right now. You don’t owe beauty to anyone, and you don’t owe a neat house to anyone but yourself.

Okay, maybe if you’re habitually late you should apologize. Or maybe you should just correct that behavior. It’s just inconsiderate.

And you don’t owe an apology for the actions of another, even your child unless you were being negligent. As an example, if your little kid knocks over my coffee in public, you owe me an apology. (And a new coffee.) If your kid is sick and behaving like a sick kid, that’s all good. My older daughter once threw up all over me, my coat, two seats and the carpet of the bus station. This is the joy of parenting.

I don’t remember the first place I heard this great suggestion but I’m not in any way taking credit for it. The next time you feel the need to say ‘sorry,’ change it to ‘thank you’.

“Thank you for waiting for me. I was getting a bird out of my basement. No, it didn’t peck me.” (This is an actual discussion I had with my doctor one time when I was late for an appointment.)

“Thank you for loving me for who I am, and understanding that I won’t always look beautiful.”

“Thank you for coming into my home, and I hope you’re comfortable even though it’s cluttered.”

“Thank you for accepting my child as they are, and understanding that sometimes horrible things come out of little bodies.”

Now, I do encourage you to genuinely apologize for things that are actually your fault. But, as they say, the best apology is always corrected behavior.

Asking others to agree with our opinions.

We all do this, don’t we?

Yeah, that. We don’t just say what we mean to say. We say it, then make it a question. I am so bad about this, and I’m sure a lot of you are too. Now that I’ve become more aware of what I’m doing, I hear it for what it really is.

“I feel this way, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I’m wrong, or that you’ll think I’m wrong and hate me because of it. And really, your opinion of me is worth more than my opinion about this matter, no matter what we’re talking about.”

Stop doing this!

Using this to show us about your character.

Okay, so we know that we should strike these two things from our daily vocabulary. But that doesn’t mean we should take these telling little language cues from a character.

Language is a huge tool in showing us a character’s, well, character. Let me show you with these two passages of dialog.

“I’m so sorry I’m late. I was waiting in line at the coffee shop, and it was so long! I can’t stand waiting, can you? And I forgot my tablet, so I had nothing to do. Don’t you hate that?”

“Thanks for waiting for me. The like at the coffee shop was insane! I hate waiting forever for my coffee but the barista was so nice. Have you tried that place?”

Now, let’s see what we can infer from these two bits of dialog. What do you think of the first person? Does she seem like she’s all together? Does it seem like she’s very confident? Does she seem a little selfish, even? Do you want to follow her to a haunted house? Maybe so they get her first and you can haul ass out of there.

What about the second woman? Does she seem frazzled or confident? Does she seem like a nice person? Does it seem like you’re going to have a good time talking to her?

How you talk will tell someone so much more than just what you’re saying. Learn to speak with confidence. But learn to let your character show everyone exactly who they are with the way they talk.

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