Attempting to improve on my ability to craft dialogue, I find myself listening to people more and more, eavesdropping on conversations and taking careful note of a person’s choice of words. Today I was in Carvel, waiting to order, when the woman in front of me was handed her root beer float. She looked at it, paused a moment and then asked, “Don’t you mix these up?”
Obviously, the woman was a lunatic to assume that a root beer float should be mixed like a shake. The word float implies that the ice cream should be floating in the root beer, and not spun in like some mutated Dairy Queen Blizzard.
But what I noticed even more was her use of the word don’t instead of the word do. Note the difference in tone between the two questions:
Don’t you mix these up?
Do you mix these up?
The use of the word don’t implies accusation. It makes the speaker sound rude, condescending, and annoyed. It’s not a nice way to solicit the desired bit of information from the counterperson.
The use of the word do essentially turns the same question into an honest search for information, with no tone of accusation or annoyance whatsoever.
Just think: One simple word change could have made this woman’s ridiculous question at least sound sincere and polite, but instead, she came across as a complete jerk.
Which undoubtedly she is.
Good to keep in mind when writing dialogue.
I was tempted to instruct this woman on her poor choice of words but chose instead to remain silent. Though I don’t do it often, I am capable of restraint from time to time.
The woman behind the counter then asked for my order.
“A root beer float, please,” I said, speaking louder than necessary. “But you don’t have to mix mine up. Just make it like a root beer float is supposed to be made. With ice cream that floats. No special orders for me.”
The woman with the float-turned-shake harrumphed in my general direction, attempted to argue that "”lots of people have their floats mixed up” and exited the store in a blustering huff, dragging her bedraggled son behind her. She was not happy with me.
So much for restraint.