Talking to Aliens

Ever have a conversation with someone of the opposite sex and feel like you’re trying to talk to an alien? They get angry or don’t respond in the way you expect and suddenly you’re hurt or upset or in the middle of an unexpected fight?

I think we forget a lot of times that communication styles between men and women are amazingly different. What seems like a normal question to a woman, can piss off your significant other. Or vice versa. (I am as guilty of this as the next person! Sorry Honey 🙂 )

Take this example*:

Eve had a benign lump removed from her breast. When she confided to her husband, Mark, that she was distressed because the stitches changed the contour of her breast, he answered, “You can always have plastic surgery.”


This comment bothered her. “I’m sorry you don’t like the way it looks,” she protested. “But I’m not having any more surgery!”


Mark was hurt and puzzled. “I don’t care about a scar,” he replied. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”


“Then why are you telling me to have plastic surgery?” she asked.


“Because you were upset about the way it looks.”


Eve felt like a heel. Mark had been wonderfully supportive throughout her surgery. How could she snap at him now?

The problem here is societal expectations. Many women talk to each other to get support and sympathy or to create intimacy. But men often communicate to solve problems and create solutions. That can cause conflict and misunderstandings when you have different expectations from the conversation.

In this example Eve just wanted Mark’s sympathy and to feel close to him, but Mark wanted to show Eve that she had alternatives, that there was a way to solve her problem if she wished. He was focused on what they could do, while Eve was focused on how she felt.

This whole set up is an interesting exercise in Point of View (in addition to something to think about next time you get in a fight with your significant other 🙂 ). While writing a scene between two characters, especially of the opposite sex, are there places where you can add tension with a misunderstanding like this? Can you use their different points of view to further characterize their personalities and show what’s important to them?

Some other differences between men and women you can use to highlight the differences in POV:

  • For men, many conversations become a contest, either to achieve the upper hand or to prevent other people from pushing them around. For women, however, talking is often a way to exchange confirmation and support.
  • Women often think in terms of closeness and support, they struggle to preserve intimacy. Men, concerned with status, tend to focus more on independence.
  • Females use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, activities, doing things together, are central.

Of course these are only generalizations, and not true of every man or woman, but they can be helpful in thinking about your characters and how to make them feel even more real. I’ll leave you with one more example – one I’ve experienced personally myself 🙂

A married couple was in a car when the wife turned to her husband and asked, “Would you like to stop for a coffee?”


“No, thanks,” he answered truthfully. So they didn’t stop.


The result? The wife, who had indeed wanted to stop, became annoyed because she felt her preference had not been considered. The husband, seeing his wife was angry, became frustrated. Why didn’t she just say what she wanted?


Unfortunately, he failed to see that his wife was asking the question not to get an instant decision, but to begin a negotiation. And the woman didn’t realize that when her husband said no, he was just expressing his preference, not making a ruling.

Next time, I’ll just tell my other half that I want a coffee.  🙂

*Examples taken from Deborah Tannen’s article here.

1 Comment

  1. You know, I never really thought about applying the differences in the way women and men communicate to my writing. But it totally makes sense. In fact, I may be doing it already without even realizing it. After reading your post, though, I’ll be more aware of it. Thanks! 🙂