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“Say What?” How Do You Say Hello?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When you speak, the words you choose, the inflection you use, your body language, the rhythm of how you speak, and the accent which shapes what your words sound like are a reflection of who you are. Without even realizing it, you have certain idioms and metaphors you use all the time in your speech.

Listen to yourself talk. Let’s start at the beginning. What word/phrase do you use when you greet someone? When I greet a close friend or family member, I use the standard southern hey! When greeting someone in a professional setting, it’s usually hi or hello. One thing most people won’t hear me use in greeting is how are you? unless it’s someone I know really well, because I’ve always believed that question should only be asked if the questioner really cares to receive an honest answer. And, honestly, most of the time I don’t when it’s someone I’m just casual acquaintances with or whom I’m greeting as I walk into a store or into church. (And come on, don’t we all pretty much lie when asked this question? Are we really “fine, how are you?” all the time?)

How many different ways are there to say hello?
hellohello; hi; hey; what’s up?; yello; howdy; yo!; bro!; salutations; how’s it hanging?; how are you?; how’s your mama ’n’ ’em?; hail; how do you do?; namaste; glad to see you!; hullo; good morning; top o’ the morning to ya; bon jour; howdy-do?; wie geht’s?; hiya; how’s tricks?; ahoy; how you doin’?; etc.

What words/phrases do you tend to use all the time? Most people would be surprised by how often they say the word like. Just as I tend to use etc. here on the blog a lot, when I speak, I have a tendency to use the phrase, “…and stuff like that” more often than I’m happy with.

Let’s face it: most of us jabber when we speak—after all, uh is the most commonly used “word” in our language. We use clichés and idioms, jargon, industry-specific lingo, and colloquialisms specific to our region of the country (please, let’s not get into the debate over whether it’s Coke or soda or pop or soda-pop). These are the parts of speech you need to train your ears to hear, because they’re the kinds of things that can either break us when it comes to writing dialogue (relying on dog-eared clichés) or they’re the kinds of specific language that can make our dialogue stand out, can make our characters sound unique. For the most part, though, we break all the rules of good dialogue when we talk: don’t let your characters run-on; compress; keep it brief; avoid clichés; don’t lose the tension of the moment; and so on.

Real speech uses very few complete sentences—and occasionally very long, meandering run-on sentences. According to Tom Chiarella in Writing Dialogue, speech reveals “context, character, rhythm, tension, and stresses” of the person who’s speaking.

The Topic of the Week over on the e-mail loop at ACFW is sharing some of our favorite snippets/phrases/idioms we’ve heard recently. The one I shared was something I heard on the radio, where the host of a program called a group of people “clueless as a box of hammers.” That’s the kind of dialogue I’m always on the lookout for—it’s off the wall and unexpected, and it speaks volumes about the character who might say something like that. So start writing down things people say throughout the day—whether it’s a unique way of greeting someone (“Greetings, exalted one”) or a colloquial way of saying thank you to someone (“’preciate ya”). You don’t always have to write it down word-for-word, but do capture the idea and a brief note about the circumstances in which it’s said.

Also, see if you can capture the differences between “home” and “out in public” speech patterns and word choices. When you’re with people you’ve known your whole life, you speak in shorthand, in analogy, referring to shared experiences and circumstances. You don’t have to explain what you mean when you pull out a phrase born from those experiences. For example, my mom and sister would know exactly what I’m talking about if I were to reference my dad’s driving by saying, “I see it; I see it.” Reading this, you might try to infer what that means based on your own experiences with your father’s driving. But it doesn’t really conjure the exact image for you that it does for them.

However, if I were to say to Mom and Michelle, “It’s just like twenty-five years ago when Daddy backed the van into the oak tree in Mamie and Papa’s yard right after saying, ‘I see it; I see it’ in response to Mom warning him about backing up too far and hitting the tree.” That now makes sense to you, but as dialogue between me and my mom/sister, because they already know the backstory, it doesn’t work and comes across as telling through dialogue.

Are you starting to get a sense of how squirrely dialogue can be?

Now I’m going to add to your homework for the week. In addition to transcribing a “real life” conversation (whether from a reality show or one that you actually record in real life) and a scene of dialogue from a movie, I want you to spend the rest of the day listening to yourself talk. How do you say hello? Goodbye? What words/phrases do you tend to use over and over and over? How often do you use the word like or the phrase y’know? What percentage of time are you spending in small-talk and how much in deep and meaningful or conflict-filled exchanges? Come back this evening and report on your findings!

  1. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 12:39 pm

    Hey is my default for almost all settings though “hi” might sneak it’s way in from time to time. The only time hello really pops up is if it’s sarcastic or answering a phone.

    “Like”, “just”, “actually” and “really” pop up an awful lot for me.


  2. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 1:19 pm

    The words “Jeep Trail” have an exclusive meaning for my husband and me. It’s something you do or say, or a place you go, or a choice you make, while ignoring that little voice at the back of your head saying, “Um… that’s a r-e-a-l-l-y bad idea, that.”


  3. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 2:20 pm

    I always say “How are you?”, in particular when I’m in a formal setting or meeting someone for the first time. That was proper etiquette when I was raised, although it’s somewhat out of fashion now.

    And when I think about it, I really do want to know. Because I’ll react to that. On the flip side, I’m can be very cloaked when it comes to my own feelings, answering “Fine”, even when I’m not.


    Saying hello: “Hey!”, “What’s up?”, “How ya doin’?”, “Hello”, “Hi”

    Saying goodbye: “Goodbye”, “See ya later”, “Later”, “Bye now”, “Bye”, “Peace out”

    I say “so…” a lot. I have to edit it out of my blog frequently. I also say “Interesting” a lot when I’m intrigued, haven’t completely coalesced my thoughts but, want to convey a more than 50% degree of interest.

    I hate when people say, “Really?” Duh. If it weren’t “really” so, I wouldn’t have said it.

    And I hate when people say, “whatever” in response to someone else because that’s simply rude, imho.


  4. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 5:11 pm


    “I hate when people say, “Really?” Duh. If it weren’t “really” so, I wouldn’t have said it.”

    I have a friend who says, “No, I’m lying!” whenever someone says “Really?” to a statement she’s made.


  5. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 5:51 pm

    Honestly, “No, I’m lying” as an answer is about a bajillion times more annoying than somebody saying “really” to begin with. So annoying that I’m apologizing for my own irritation with it in advance:

    “Really?” is rhetorical. It’s the same thing as if somebody said “Oh wow” or “That’s unbelievable” or “Seriously?” or “Are you kidding?” or “Right…” or “That’s interesting.” If somebody just says “really” that generally means nothing worth a more interesting response was said. Just be thankful whoever it was bothered to listen to whatever was said at all. Or if it’s just used in the middle of a huge diatribe, they’re probably just letting you know they’re still listening to your rant.

    Responding with “No, I’m lying” is like if somebody says “Hey”, you say “What’s up?” and they reply with, “The sky.” Hardy-har-har, they’ve just verified there’s no reason to try to talk to them; sorry for acting like I cared. If I wanted that kind of comedy gold, I’d go back to third grade. Just be grateful they heard what was said at all instead of turning your nose up at their phrase they used to let you know they did. Is it really more annoying to have someone that says “Really?” or somebody that just won’t listen to what you say at all? I’d rather deal with the former any day.


  6. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 6:31 pm

    Caleb, I’m really quite impressed with your defense of “really.” 😉


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  9. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 8:36 pm

    LOL, I used ‘yello’ in my book one place:-) Oh, and I had ‘hows it hanging’ in there one time too but took it out when someone pointed out to me that it has a not so very good meaning…

    I say, “how are you” a lot in business because it is a natural way to start. Other variants “How is your morning?” and my favorite is when I’m returning a voicemail “What did you screw up now?” I only use that when I know the person well and they know my off sense of humor.

    “Hey baby” to my hubby, or “Hey handsome”

    I think my default is just “Hey …. (fill in the blank)” I’m pretty casual:-)

    Oh, and my little brother usually gets a “Hey dork…”


  10. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 10:24 pm


    Normally I’d agree with you, especially if it was said snarkily. In this particular case, it works without annoying. It’s usually quite funny. Guess it all comes down to character, and how they deliver the line.


  11. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 11:27 pm

    I suppose the tone could give a different feel if you heard it in person, but with just text it reads as being pretty pompous. I believe you that your friend doesn’t mean it that way, but I know my initial reaction to reading it was “Wow, what a jerk thing to say.”

    If you want to make a character in a book likeable, that might not be the best line to give them, just because of the possible confusion for uninformed readers though. 😉

    I still stand by regular use of the word “really” as a filler word. Just for the record. It’s a silly thing to be that bothered by.


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