Going back to my school days, I remember first noticing when my friends would answer a call then suddenly get… The Voice. They would pick up the phone, give a hearty, “Yo, whassup,” and then The Voice would kick in. This was before caller ID, so they answered the phone very casually. However, once they heard their new girlfriend on the other end, their voice would change by an octave into a cuddly, happy, non-threatening, “Hi, Boopie…” thing. Once I heard my friend shift into The Voice, I knew exactly who it was and that I would not be talking to my friend for a long time – “Boopie” was clearly the priority. All my friends – the tough ones, the kindly ones, even I had this voice, and even if we refused to admit we heard it in ourselves, everyone else picked it up like a dog whistle to a box of love-struck puppies.
I could be smoking cigars with my friends, playing poker and talking trash one night, totally awash in testosterone, and yet turn on a dime when Boopie calls. The biggest part that changes is my mannerism and how it’s portrayed before and just after I take the call. People have physical cues that appear, depending on the voice they are responding to. The responses can be subtle or overt, depending on the magnitude, but it is up to the writer to hand those over.
Think of a work situation. Your colleague across the aisle is doing their thing when the phone rings and they grab it without thinking to look at the ID. If it’s the department VP, how does your coworker respond? Do they sit up in their chair? Adjust their jacket? Do they go through a little primping to look more professional even though the VP can’t actually see them? Well, if you see them suddenly put on the professional pose, you can infer that it’s a superior. Of course, if it’s their spouse calling, watch your colleague relax their shoulders, perhaps exhale deeply in relief, even close their eyes and faintly smile (or the opposite if it’s not the best marriage around). Describe the body language and you fill in the picture without even touching the dialogue.
Of course, the dialogue itself is important. Consider a situation where our friend, Tom, receives a call and it’s someone who is pitching an otherwise-terrible idea. Think about how Tom’s response would differ depending on who he is talking to. I offer the following examples:
Tom said to his friend, “Dude, that’s like an eight on the dumbass idea scale.”
Tom said to his mother, “Are you really sure about this idea?”
Tom said to his colleague, “I think you might want to circle back and get some more input on this idea.”
Tom said to his boss, “Well, sir, that is… an idea, sir.” (We kind of lose respect for Tom here.)
These little tweaks to mannerisms, word choice, and a variety of other factors do a lot of heavy lifting for a writer. They elaborate on the character, the relationship with the other party, the character’s social management techniques, and much more, all to the reader’s benefit. Do a little people-watching, and you will pick up these cues quickly – and it doesn’t have to be with something as overt as The Voice, which I proudly still carry around.