“Say What?” How Do You Say Hello?
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?
hello; 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!