Cooperation vs. Competition: Gender Differences in Communication

tough boy, smiling girlIn my fiction, I like to explore the conflicts that occur when well-meaning people communicate at cross-purposes. People with different personality preferences have different goals in mind when they speak. Gender differences increase the opportunity for misunderstanding.

This potential source of conflict may be problematic for society as a whole, but it’s great for fiction writers. How can you use differences in communication styles to increase tension in your fiction?

How Men Communicate

According to marriage counselor Lesli Doares, male communication focuses on problem-solving, jockeying for position, and creating boundaries to establish independence. Testosterone makes men sensitive to angry faces. Anger gives men energy: it increases competition and calls them to action. But this sensitivity to anger also teaches men to resist showing emotion. They tend to avoid eye contact, because it can be seen as threatening. As a result, they may misinterpret signs of distress—such as frustration, confusion, or worry—as anger. Moreover, men’s ability to empathize with others is diminished when they’re agitated. Under stress, they often pull away.

How Women Communicate

Women, by contrast, communicate to make connections, build consensus, and minimize differences. Oxytocin leads them to focus on bonding activities. They chat to look for common ground and to establish a sense of community. Women are good at reading subtle emotions. They find competition and conflict to be threatening. They tend to soften directive statements by phrasing them in the form of a question—”Can you take out the trash?”—even though they expect compliance. Under stress, their ability to empathize deepens.

Inherent Conflict

It’s easy to see how, in early human society, these differences in communication styles served the species well. While the women were at the campsite gathering food and caring for the children, men were out hunting game and protecting the tribe against threats. Yet in romantic relationships—or any other relationships between men and women—these diametrically opposed communication styles can create endless frustration, misunderstanding, and even distrust. When a woman chats to create camaraderie, the man goes into problem solving mode. She takes this to mean that the man thinks she’s incapable of solving her own problems. Instead of feeling supported, she feels belittled. The man misinterprets her hurt feelings as anger. He doesn’t understand why she’s angry when he was just offering the helpful advice that he thought she wanted.

Note that the male communication style contains similarities to that of Thinking types, while the female communication style contains similarities to that of Feeling types. But personality preferences are just that—preferences. They don’t necessarily reflect ability. Under stress, women who prefer Thinking may be better able to empathize with others than men who prefer Feeling.

In your own fiction, use these gender differences in conjunction with personality preferences to enrich the character development and deepen the conflict.

The Unity of Character and Plot

Several years ago, at the North Carolina Writers Network conference, I attended a session where the instructor claimed that character is plot. While I understand her point, I think she went too far. Many things happen in our lives that we can’t control. In fiction, the response to external events demonstrates character and propels plot. But generally, by the end of the story, the protagonist becomes proactive instead of responsive, and the protagonist’s positive action creates the climax.

Character and plot must work in harmony. For the story to be believable, the actions the character takes must be consistent with the character you’ve created. For instance, imagine if two of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, Hamlet and Othello, were the protagonist in each other’s stories. How would those plays go?

Act I, Scene 1: The ghost of the old king tells Othello to avenge the old king’s death by killing Claudius.
Act I, Scene 2: Othello kills Claudius.
The End

No story, right? And if Iago hinted to Hamlet that Desdemona were cheating on him, Hamlet would answer, “You cannot play upon me.”

For the two plays to work, Othello‘s hero must display extraverted, sensing, judging energy, while Hamlet‘s hero must display introverted, intuitive, perceiving energy.

Keep in mind, though, that when under extreme stress, people (and characters) behave in ways they never would otherwise. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises novelists to imagine something their character would never think, say, or do—then create a situation where the character thinks, says, or does exactly that. If it’s critical to your story that your character behave in uncharacteristic ways, put that character in an environment of increasing stress, until the point that the character’s “shadow” takes over. Isabel Myers defined the “shadow” as the inferior function. It is the least developed, and the one least likely to be used in a rational and mature manner—even in the best of times. When someone is under stress, and the inferior function takes charge, the results can be disastrous.

In your own stories, do character and plot work in harmony? If a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way, be sure to show that the character is under enough stress to make the action believable.

There Is No Muse: Where Writers Really Get Their Ideas

Creative writers dread the question, “Where did you get your idea?” I was asked this question recently and answered it as honestly as I could. But in fact, I’m not sure the question has an answer. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They come from our imagination, from the whispers of forgotten memories, from our own experiences, from our friends’ experiences, from books and songs and movies. Writers draw their stories from the amalgam of their lives.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve told myself stories. Author J.D. Rhoades says it’s like having a movie playing continuously on the inside of your forehead. I can’t understand having a brain that doesn’t work that way. So I don’t quite understand what people want to know when they ask where I get my ideas. I’m torn between giving a simple, concrete answer or a more theoretical one that reveals the artistic process.

In the mind of a creative writer, ideas are like a throng of brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange screaming for attention. Novelists don’t write because they get ideas—they write because they need to get rid of ideas. They write because an idea is burning a hole in their skull, and it won’t stop until they let it out. And if you’ve never had that experience, then my telling you in a simple, concrete way where I got my idea won’t get you any closer to understanding where stories come from.

But do people who ask that question really want to know where stories come from? I don’t think so. I think they want a simple answer so they can nod and think they understand a process so mysterious that no one can ever understand it. They want an answer that gives the illusion that the artistic process is linear and predictable, when in fact it’s dark and chaotic.

This concept that a Muse from on high touches you with her magic, and suddenly an idea bursts forth, is a fallacy. The imaginations of creative writers are constantly churning. At some point, we grab an idea from that fermenting brew and channel our energy into making a full-blown story or novel out of it. One thought builds on another until a world is born. And I think that’s true regardless of the author’s preference for sensing or intuition. Sensing types may be more drawn to stories that come from something concrete—like a saga from their family’s history—while intuitive types might prefer more imaginative stories like fantasy or science fiction. But I don’t think either type suffers from a shortage of ideas. We suffer from a plenitude of them.

Related posts:
Incubating Your Fiction Ideas
Writing and Creativity: Going Outward to Go Inward

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication

The Myers-Briggs theory teaches that we each have preferred ways of communicating. But our preferences may not be the best way of making the message clear to the audience. When writing, we have the luxury of editing what we wrote. Not so in speech. Either way, misunderstanding can ensue when we don’t adequately consider the needs of our audience.

Sensing vs. Intuition

Often, preference isn’t about what we do, but the order in which we do it. For instance, when I’m writing a scene for a novel, I start with the dialogue. Once that’s in place, I’ll add gestures, facial expressions, and movement. Setting and sensory detail come last, because sensing is my inferior function. That part of the scene doesn’t have meaning for me until the rest of the scene is in place.

But the setting elements of the scene must come first for the reader. Readers can’t immerse themselves in the scene until they know when and where it’s taking place, and which characters are there. Is the environment light or dark, quiet or noisy? Are the characters happy, angry, or frightened?

So, too, in spoken communication, Continue reading “There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication”

Yesterday and Today: Introverted vs. Extraverted Sensing

Child stopping to smell the rosesWriters often get lost in their heads. If they didn’t, they might never get any work done. But for those with a preference for introversion and intuition, it can be difficult to reconnect with the real world. I suspect that writers in general, and IN types in particular, suffer from chronic sensory deprivation. We have to make an effort to interrupt our writing and indulge our senses.

To stay grounded, I keep crayons near my computer so I can play with color combinations. I have a pack of gum on my desk for calorie-free flavor. I burn scented candles and listen to music. These little things offer me a much-needed reality break.

INFJs like me extravert their sensing function. Extraverted sensing experiences the world in all its vibrancy. It sifts through sensory data and identifies what is most relevant and most critical in the current situation. It seizes opportunities as they present themselves. It troubleshoots and seeks a tactical advantage. It wants immediate gratification.

By contrast, introverted sensing relates the present situation Continue reading “Yesterday and Today: Introverted vs. Extraverted Sensing”

Dreamcatchers: Introverted vs. Extraverted Intuition

Japanese fan unfoldedThe protagonist in my novel-in-progress is an ENFP. With her dominant extraverted intuition, she’s constantly looking for new possibilities. A defense lawyer, she’s driven by a desire to help her clients make a better life. Her concept of reality is fluid: she moves effortlessly between what is and what could be. She can entertain contradictory ideas at the same time. She  envisions many different ways in which a scenario could play out. Before she makes a decision, she consults her family and friends to winnow her ideas.

In some ways, my protagonist is my alter ego. I’m an INFJ, so my dominant function is introverted intuition. Introverted intuition is also fueled by possibility. But unlike extraverted intuition, it seeks to build a unified internal vision, then make that vision a reality. I understand the world by looking for connections, by taking seemingly disparate ideas and combining them. I’m excited by those “aha” moments when I find the missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle and the picture becomes clear. I zealously pursue my new understanding and seek to incorporate it into my life. Like ENFPs, I also see reality as fluid, but I limit myself to adopting one version of it. I find too many choices to be immobilizing. I generally make decisions on my own, or I may consult one other person if I’m really struggling.

To my mind, extraverted intuition is like opening a Japanese fan, and introverted intuition is like closing it. Introverted intuition looks at all the possibilities and homes in on the one likely to produce the best outcome. Extraverted intuition starts with a single point then fans out, pulling ideas from all directions.

All types use intuition, including those who prefer sensing. Types with an NJ or SP preference have introverted intuition, while those with an NP or SJ preference use extraverted intuition. When intuition is not in the dominant position, it plays a supporting role, bringing a new perspective to old ideas.

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Straight from the Heart: Introverted vs. Extraverted Feeling

Like many people with a preference for intuition and thinking, my husband doesn’t quite grasp the concept of greeting cards. They’re just pieces of paper with other people’s sentiments printed on them, right? Logically, I see his point. But with my preference for intuition and feeling, I place a lot of value on the symbolism of greeting cards (and on the symbolism of not giving a loved one a greeting card for a special occasion).

Given my INFJ preference, I communicate with the world through extraverted feeling, which focuses on building and maintaining relationships and social networks. I love giving greeting cards, and I especially enjoy blank cards that allow me to write my own message rather than adding my signature to someone else’s. When I receive greeting cards, I read them eagerly. But after a few days, I throw them out. The emotion has been expressed and received, so the card has served its purpose.

My husband, on the other hand, keeps the greeting cards he receives—sometimes for years. And he doesn’t stick them in a drawer somewhere. He displays them where he can see them and read them.

As an INTJ, my husband introverts his feeling function. Introverted feeling focuses on values, integrity, and appropriateness. It’s  less expressive but more sentimental than extraverted feeling. So even though my husband may not think to give greeting cards, the ones he receives are special to him.

So I try not to get upset if he doesn’t give me a card for a birthday or anniversary. The fact that he values the cards I give him tells me all I need to know.

Want to know if your feeling function is introverted or extraverted? TJs and FPs have introverted feeling, while FJs and TPs use extraverted feeling.

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What’s in a Name? Introverted vs. Extraverted Thinking

Personality type affects how we communicate, sometimes in unexpected ways. When talking about the MBTI personality types, people generally think in terms of the preferences. But everyone uses all four cognitive functions, including the nonpreferred ones. And personality type is affected by whether the function is introverted or extraverted.

My husband is an INTJ, while I’m and INFJ. He communicates with the world through extraverted thinking, while my thinking function is introverted. Here’s a typical conversation we might have on a weekend.

Hubby: Want to go with me to the hardware store?
Me: Which one?
Hubby: The blue one.
Me: You mean Lowe’s?
Hubby: I guess so.

I used to find it incredibly frustrating that he seemed to pay little attention to the names of things. After all, isn’t it possible that there’s more than one blue hardware store? How could I be sure which one he meant without knowing the name?

He, on the other hand, considers names extraneous, and often difficult to remember. Names, he says, get in the way. They create barriers between ideas. For instance, it’s clear what the relationship is between “the blue hardware store” and “the orange hardware store.” Calling them “Lowe’s” and “Home Depot” obscures that connection.

Introverted thinking is all about classifying things. It likes to give them names and put them in little boxes. Extraverted thinking is more conceptual. It looks at how things relate to one another. So while introverted thinking focuses on separating things into their unique parts, extraverted thinking focuses on organizing things into a unified whole.

Given my introverted thinking function, I can’t understand something until I put a name on it. Until I could articulate that my husband thinks in terms of “concepts,” while I think in terms of “names,” I had a devil of a time comprehending his aversion to calling things by the same words everyone else uses. Now, I can enjoy his innovative use of language—for instance, calling the wisteria bush “the hysterical bush” because it grows out of control. The name fits the concept.

Wondering whether your thinking function is introverted or extraverted? FJ and TP types have introverted thinking, while FP and TJ and types have extraverted thinking.

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Punctuation and Personality Type in Fiction

In his blog post The Great Semi-Colon Debate, author James Scott Bell says that semicolons should be avoided in fiction. I agree to a point, but I wouldn’t ban them altogether. If used skillfully, semicolons can reveal character in dialogue and internal monologue.

In my own fiction writing, I associate certain punctuation marks with the speech patterns of certain personality types. These aren’t hard rules, of course. But here’s my list of punctuation marks and the personality types that go with them.

Semicolons: INPs

INFPs and INTPs communicate with the world through extraverted intuition. Intuition naturally sees all ideas as connected. But as introverts, the INPs think before they speak. This combination of tendencies leads to sentences that are long but carefully constructed; the semicolon is the best punctuation mark to communicate this quality.

Comma splices: ENPs

Continue reading “Punctuation and Personality Type in Fiction”

Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough”

frustrated editorIn the field of technical communication, “good enough” documentation is becoming the norm. For me as an INFJ writer, this is a difficult concept to master. I want documentation to be as good as it can be. As an NF, I’m passionate about effective communication. As a judging type, I want to see style rules applied consistently. So when you tell me that my task as an editor is to make the document “good enough,” I go into stress mode. For an INFJ, this means the inferior sensing function surfaces. I may avoid the task by indulging in an activity that engages the senses, like getting a snack or playing Scramble on my iPod. If I try to edit, I may become obsessed with mundane details. Every sentence sounds wrong.

It used to be that working as an editor meant proofreading and ensuring consistency. It meant helping writers to better organize the material and to identify sentences that could be better written. Those things seem like a luxury now. Two technological developments have changed the role of the editor, perhaps forever:

Continue reading “Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough””