How’s Your Tone of Voice?

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How's your tone?My younger brother rarely catches my tone of voice. More often than not, he takes offense with something I say because he misinterprets how I say or mean it. I then have to explain my intention. Because of that, I’ve learned to watch my tone of voice when I text with him or comment on his Facebook status. I would prefer not to fight with him 257 days out of the year.

The same things happens with emails and blog posts. The tone with which either was written is missed by the recipient or audience. People are offended or get their feelings hurt. Explanations and apologies then have to be made.

Tone of voice is a hard thing to manage. I don’t always succeed in expressing my tone, as evidenced by my brother’s reaction. I try to manage it in one of three ways: I consider word choice, I consider the intended recipient, and I consider how I would feel if I were on the receiving end of my words.

Word choice

Tone often is dependent upon the words used. “Expect” and “need” may be similar words, but they have different connotations. “I expect you to complete this project by the end of the day” is interpreted differently than “I need you to complete this project by the end of the day.” The first is somewhat demanding; the second is more courteous. The first wording may be necessary in some cases, but it shouldn’t be used in every instance. The word is dependent upon the recipient.

Intended recipient

Tone is dependent upon the recipient. For instance, the tone I use when I’m applying for a job or pitching an article to an organization is different from the tone I use when I email a friend. My emails with friends are chatty. They’re lengthy. They have asides within asides. They tend to make some of my friends – the ones who appreciate such a tone – laugh. The ones who don’t appreciate that tone or style don’t receive that sort of email. I’m brief. I may write something funny, but I don’t write a short story in the body of the email.

Potential reaction

I try to think about how my words will affect another person. I don’t always succeed in that consideration, but I do make the attempt. My consideration is both a part of my personal and professional life. I try to write to people in the same way that I would want them to write to me. An example? A few weeks ago, I asked for clarification about an acronym. It wasn’t one with which I was familiar, and, rather than playing the guessing game, I asked what it meant. The person replied by writing out the acronym, then bolding the first letter of each word in the acronym. To me, the bold lettering was excessive. It hurt a little. I felt as though I were being told I was dumb for not knowing the definition of the acronym. I hate being made to feel that way, so I’m conscious of it when I respond to other people’s questions.

How’s your tone? Has it ever been misinterpreted? Would you like to talk about tone of voice? If so, let’s chat.

Image: OurWorld2.0 (CC BY NC SA 2.0)

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Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is the director of editorial services at Tenacity5 Media and the founder of Write Right. She's a copywriter, editor, poet, and artist. You can find Erin on .

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17 comments
sgaddu
sgaddu

Hi your constitution is Pitta as accordance to Ayurveda. Your intentions are to the point, rather than beating around the bush. This is an interesting article.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

This was a good post that everyoneshould read. I think that many times that feelings are hurt, it isbecause the receiver of the message is predisposed to interpreting themissive as negative. There are several people I interact with on Twitterwho will go to great lengths to see the slight in any comment. I trynot to communicate with them, but if I feel I must, I am extra careful.

When I intend to offend, it is usually obvious, because I will unleash atorrent of vitriol that I hope drives the person to...well...a long,slow, tortured, painful death. I want to crush their very being.  Bottomline, don't cast aspersion about bacon, lest you went to feel my wrath.

Latest blog post: ROI of Hugs, Cats and Wine

barrettrossie
barrettrossie

ABSOLUTELY!   :-)     

I find that social media, especially blog post replies, can be misunderstood. What I mean to say is that I write quickly, in the spirit of the moment and fail to write carefully and self edit. 

rdopping
rdopping

Hey Erin, personally I try not to over think things. I am guilty of that often so I have to consciously work at it. Tone to me is in speaking. When I write a response to someone I usually try to throw in some humour if I know the person. I spend a lot of time writing email correspondence during the course of a regular day and have found certain words do elicit responses that you can expect. That's why I use them.

Your point about reaction is well taken but you also have to remember that you cannot anticipate someone's intent when you are not in front of them and able to read non-verbal cues. You can't help how you feel about something thought and there's nothing wrong with being a sensitive person. Th simple fact that you are aware of the effect your words have on someone is admirable.

Cheers miss!

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@ExtremelyAvg I get the sense that you would love writing invectives. 

Some people are overly sensitive or negative, whichever the case may be. They - I hope - are the minority. It would be difficult to write for that crowd on a regular basis.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Humor is hard to capture online, especially in a fast-paced conversation. Maybe part of the problem, too, is that people will skim a post rather than read it in full. It's easy to see how tone could be missed if the person is skimming rather than reading.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@barrettrossie I once worked on a bond campaign. Let's say things could get heated. I had no skin in the game, really, but I was the community manager. I had to diffuse situations, so I learned how important a slow answer was. There's nothing wrong with writing quickly; I think it's hitting "send" or "post comment" quickly that gets us into trouble. Perhaps the adage should be to write quickly and to edit at leisure.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@timbo1973 Indeed. Maybe I'm hyper-sensitive to tone because of my background in literature and writing. I can say that short sentences sound abrupt, particularly if they're written one on top of another. Long sentences can flow, but they also can decrease understanding. Quotation marks can suggest skepticism. 

I'll sometimes test tone (I'm evil that way.) by making flat statements and seeing how people respond. The people who know me well - they've interacted with me regularly online or know me in person - usually can gauge my tone. People who don't me well struggle to do that, which tends to confirm that tone needs to be expressed as clearly as possible with new acquaintances and on a website. People new to the site need to be able to know your stance on certain things.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@rdopping I don't agree that tone only is in speaking, but I understand your point about over-thinking. I didn't mean to encourage that. The three things I mention are more of a check before hitting send - making sure the right words were used, considering how the other person communicates.

No, you can't anticipate intent or motivation. I've seen far too many people - myself included - try to guess at it. I've gotten past that. If I'm unsure of how the person meant something he or she wrote, I ask. If I'm misunderstood, I clarify.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

@Erin F. @ExtremelyAvg The question of writing incentives is an interesting one. I've wondered how I would behave if ever given money to write a book. I suspect, knowing how I am, that I would hate it and find the task to be a burden. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to make a bazillion dollars as an author, but could I handle the pressure of writing for someone other than myself?

I just don't know.

Fortunately, I don't have any intention of submitting my work to "real" publishers, so this will not become an issue.  Publishing is fun. So, I'll stay on the path I'm on and enjoy the sites along the way.

Latest blog post: ROI of Hugs, Cats and Wine

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@ExtremelyAvg Misreading a word happens to all of us. Maybe it's time for a break? I'm taking a break and reading a book this evening. :)

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@ExtremelyAvg Not incentives, invectives. Hahaha! I was really confused for a minute. An invective is an angry poem. Some Romans turned the invective into a pure art form.

As for incentives and publishers, I don't know. I like to keep my own schedule. Working according to another person's schedule might be the best way for me to burn out.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@rdopping I have some future posts in the works that might better illuminate the idea that writing has tone.

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  1. [...] It’s what people hear when you communicate. It’s personality, character, style and substance. It demands attention. [...]

  2. […] same theme as brought about by a consideration of the publication, it will inevitably result in a different tone and style. I can get away with a chatty style with a younger audience. I probably will want to be more formal […]

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