I recently posted a piece on how women’s voices are being criticized and discounted via both voice policing and tone policing. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-sx)
Now I want to talk about another kind of voice policing – the kind I am learning to apply to myself.
Over the years, my voice has done things that I didn’t intend for it to do, principally driving away acquaintances, potential friends, and even established friends. I believe that part of this phenomenon has to do with my tone and how I express myself.
Expert linguist (and noted science fiction author) Suzette Haden Elgin described it this way: “For English, more than half of the information is not in the words but in the body language, including the intonation of the voice – the melody of the voice – that goes with the words.” (https://www.scribd.com/doc/78998622/Suzette-Elgin-The-Gentle-Art-of-Verbal-Self-Defense-Overview)
Most people know intuitively what certain vocal intonations mean and how they can be used to alter the meaning of a sentence. In the movie My Cousin Vinny, a character responds to an accusation of murder by saying in a tone of disbelief and horror, “I shot the clerk!!!??” When this part of the interrogation is read aloud in court, in a level tone, “I shot the clerk” sounds like a confession.
The difference is in the “melody” of the two utterances.
The effects of tone or melody can even be recognized in two- or three-word sentences. Here’s an example:
“Don’t do that” simply means not to do something – give the cat a treat between meals, for example.
“DONT do that” means “I know you think that’s what I told you to do, but you’re mistaken.”
“Don’t DO that” means “You’re annoying me.”
“Don’t do THAT” means “That idea is ridiculous, idiotic, or harmful,” and possibly “You’re an idiot.”
Or think about the shades of meaning you can convey with one syllable: “No.” “Yeah.” “Right.” They can mean exactly the opposite of their definition, along with dozens of other shades of meaning: disbelief, denial, offense, uncertainty, questioning, agreement, scorn, and “You’re an idiot.”
Vocal intonation is very difficult to convey in writing without extra punctuation or modifiers like “in a level tone.” My unfortunate inability to understand vocal melody – or to produce the correct one – is likely the reason that my statements are misunderstood. They come out sounding like sarcasm, snark, or know-it-all superiority, none of which is likely to be appreciated by the hearer.
And that’s been my problem. Unintentionally, I have been making verbal attacks on people. To quote Elgin again: “Any time you hear a lot of extra stresses and emphasis on words or parts of words, you should be on the alert.” The hearer may not be able to identify what makes the sentence an attack rather than just rude (which I am also quite capable of accidentally producing), but she or he can tell it’s not pleasant.
Every time I have said, “Don’t do THAT” instead of “Don’t do that,” I have made an impression that I am a snotty, overbearing, judgmental person.
I have a particular memory of doing just that. A person mentioned casually that she wasn’t going to get a flu shot because she had heard they contained the flu virus. “But that’s how vaccines WORK!” I replied. My tone conveyed “Everyone should know that” and “You’re an idiot.”
I shudder to think how many people I have called idiots without meaning to.
And that’s just in regular conversations. When I attempt to be amusing or humorous, I probably get the “music” wrong a lot of the time and offend. Of course, some of my friends like sarcasm and snark, but I forget that not everyone does.
Talking on the phone and in email or chat is particularly fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and offense. On the phone, vocal melody is all. The other person can’t see your facial expression – raised eyebrows, frown or smile, puzzlement, a nod of approval. Some people suggest smiling even though it can’t be seen – that it makes a difference in your voice. I’ve never been able to get the hang of that, though.
In email and chat, you don’t even have vocal melody to help. Emojis and <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> can convey expression, but they’re clumsy and easy to forget. The internet is a place where misunderstanding and giving offense are easy to do.
There is one way I have improved my voice. I have trained myself to listen for and use strangers’ names in phone conversations with company representatives: “Here’s my problem, Jackie.” “I appreciate your help, Keanna.” (This works in person, too. Who wouldn’t rather hear, “Kevin, I have a question” than “Waiter, I have a question”? It’s right there on the name tag. I can remember that for half an hour, especially if I reinforce myself by using it.)
Does it actually matter whether servers and customer service people are offended or encouraged by my tone? I like to think that it does, and that vocal melody makes a difference to the service I get and the next person’s too. And it’s a way of practicing controlling my vocal tone.
I may never have a toned body, but I’m doing my best to have a properly toned voice!