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Watch Your Tone

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. So listen up!

By John Cadley


Bart Brown illustration

I had never heard the word but I knew immediately what it meant. I was 7 years old and my mother had asked me to clean my room. I did not want to clean my room. (If you know a 7-year-old who wants to clean his or her room, send me the name and I will forward it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!)

I could not say “no,” but I could say “yes” in a way that expressed my displeasure at being ordered to perform such an onerous task. So I said, “Yes, Mother” in the manner of an obsequious mama’s boy. That’s when my mother said, “Watch your tone, young man.” I knew from her tone that she understood my disrespect, especially when she said, “And when you’re done, you can walk the dog and bring in the garbage can, Mister Wiseguy.”

It was then I learned that “tone” was the word for conveying a meaning other than the words you speak. I instantly thought of a schoolmate who always said “I’m sorry” in a way that gave you the distinct impression it was you who should be sorry. So that was “tone,” eh? Powerful stuff.

Just how powerful is indicated by the so-called Tone List, which was developed by English teachers and identifies 180 (!) ways we humans have devised to say what we’re not saying, from sarcastic to stentorian, arrogant to apathetic, callous to concerned, and so on, right through the gamut of human emotions. I always thought “I love you” meant … I love you. Well, if we throw a dart at the Tone List and hit “hesitant,” I’m really saying, “I love you … I think.” If my tone is “reverent,” I’m saying, “I love you because you are a saint free from all human failings.” The recipient of that tone may like it, but the user will soon learn that “restrained” might have been a better choice. “You’re crazy” is another expression which, if said in an “amused” tone, would mean “Your eccentric behavior entertains me,” but which, if spoken in a “concerned” voice, means you’re crazy.

“Businesses have a tone of voice as well as people, and they would be wise to choose it carefully.”

A study by the University of Southern California monitored verbal interaction of hundreds of couples in marriage therapy. The counselors counseled and the couples talked, and when all was said and done, no amount of professional help could predict the success of a marriage better than the tone of voice each partner used with the other. If one said in an angry tone “This is your fault” and the other responded in a sarcastic tone, “Of course it is. Everything’s my fault,” the therapists could predict with some confidence that a certain legal procedure involving no-fault lay somewhere in the future.

Women have a particularly difficult challenge with tone. Research has shown that businesswomen speaking in a lower-pitched tone are taken more seriously than those who speak at higher frequencies. Certainly unfair, but apparently true. Why else would such a formidable figure as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have worked diligently to lower her voice by a full 46 hertz? She knew that if she was going to say things like “If you want to cut your own throat, don’t come to me for a bandage,” it would require a tone that did not sound like one of the celestial cherubim.

Businesses have a tone of voice as well as people, and they would be wise to choose it carefully. Telling a customer bluntly, “Your product is no longer covered by warranty,” will be heard as, “You thought you were smart not buying the extended warranty. How do you like us now?” Or “Your subscription does not include that feature.” Translation: “If you think we’re going to give you something for free, forget it.”

If you really want to learn about tone, learn Mandarin Chinese, the world’s foremost tonal language, in which vocal timbre will give the same word multiple meanings. For instance, ma can mean horse, mother, scold or hemp, depending on intonation. You can see the danger. One wouldn’t want to confuse one’s mother with hemp, or scold her for being a horse.

Even this very column has a tone. Some of my readers have called it skeptical, even cynical. To which I reply—Yeah? So? You got a problem with that?




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