Ireland and Pennebaker used the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) system for making computer counts of different kinds of words in texts. They analyzed 2495 transcripts of naturalistic conversations, found gender differences of usage of function worlds in seven categories. For instance, as compared with men, women used more expressions of the kind "I think …" "I guess …" which might indicate more tentativeness, or more salience of issues of theory of mind.
Ireland and Pennebaker then analyzed dialogue in 108 scripts by 73 scriptwriters. Men and women scriptwriters tended to depict the speech patterns for characters of their own gender more accurately than for characters of the opposite gender, whose speech patterns they tended to make more gender-neutral. Male scriptwriters tended to replicate gender differences in their characters more realistically than female scriptwriters.
These results raise a set of interesting questions. First, should writers study results of this kind, derived from the scientific study of literature? My view is that the the answer is yes. Of course they should.
And now comes the real question, raised by Molly Ireland in her talk at the conference: what then should writers do about this kind of effect? Should they strive for the natural, or should they exaggerate a bit?
My view is that in general writers do well to pay attention to John Keats when, in an early statement of the principle of defamiliarization, he wrote that "poetry should surprise by a fine excess." This goes for prose, too, I think, and even for movie scripts. Conversation in ordinary life functions to maintain and develop the relationship between the conversants. Dialogue in fiction is quite different. It has the function, first, of taking forward the story, second of delineating character, and third of building a relationship with the reader or viewer. If gender is important in this second function—delineation of character—which it very often is, then emphasizing differences by means of a "fine excess" may probably be what a writer should think of doing.
Molly E. Ireland & James W. Pennebaker (2010) Do authors have an ear for the opposite sex? Presentation at the meeting of the International Society for Empirical Research in Literature, Utrecht, Holland, 7-11 July.
Image: Academiegebouw, University of Utrecht