Tuning Your Tone

Does the phrasing of a sentence really matter? As long as the meaning is clear, it should be fine, right? No. If you think that, you are wrong. Or, should I say, that’s not generally the case? Even if subconsciously, we all formulate opinions about a writer on any number of things, just like we do with a human being who’s standing right in front of us. In the opinion of this humble and unbelievably talented human, one of the most important is tone.

When you’re talking with someone out loud, you have plenty of things at your disposal that you lose when you transition to written communication. One of the most important is your tone of voice. Comedians and psychologists alike will tell you it’s just as much how you say something as what you say.

If you’re talking to a cute li’l baby, you can say pretty much anything you want as long as you say it in that calm and soothing tone that babies like. Conversely, if you’re looking in my direction and screaming in a deep baritone with spittle flying from your lips, I’m only going to think you’re angry, even if you’re telling me what a handsome gentleman I am. Tone can be the difference between benevolence and beat down.

“Okay, fine, tone is important, give us the easy improvements to help fix all our problems now!” Since you asked so nice! I have a few things I’ve learned during my years managing an online community, as well as the lifetime I’ve spent communicating online. If these things can improve the notoriously poor behavior that comes with anonymity online, they can definitely help you trick your friends and coworkers into thinking you’re friendly and nice.

One of the first things to be cognizant of is probably one of the simplest. Don’t use words you wouldn’t normally use in everyday conversation. Don’t put special effort into sounding ‘official’ or ‘authoritative’. Generally speaking, people aren’t good at this (companies are), and the best case scenario is that you end up sounding impersonal, and possibly arrogant.

For example, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t use contractions. When you don’t use contractions, that’s going to be perceived as a deliberate choice, and generally implies emphasis. Whatever the tone of your sentence already is, it is going to be amplified.

In addition to removing contractions, you can also use short sentences to emphasize a point. It works. However, this is something you need to take a bit of care with. As humans, we generally use far more words to convey a point than is necessary. Using more than the bare minimum is like telling the other person that you think they’re worth an extra couple seconds. Be concise, but not abrupt.

Another way you can try to make sure your tone is what you intend is to be cognizant of your use of definitive words. Using a definitive word such as “always”, “never”, “don’t” (or “do not” if we’re trying to provide emphasis) immediately causes a reaction in people. Using definitives is pretty aggressive (not necessarily negatively so). Use them only when the situation truly calls for it. Like when you tell a child not to bite or punch.

In the same way, you can also modify the tone of your words by using unnecessary modifiers. This relates to the above idea of using a few more words than is strictly necessary. For example, if someone is doing something that isn’t allowed, the difference between “That’s not really something we allow” and “That’s not allowed” is pretty significant. If you have the authority to say such a thing, the outcome should be the same, but the latter makes you look a little like a jerk.

I hope this general overview of how to tune your tone was helpful, and I’ll see you next time.