”Come here, John.”
I hope the episodic memory of mine that contains the sentence above, never leaves my brain.
It was second year psych, Learning & Cognition, and Meredith McKague (the awesome awesome lecturer who was later to become my honors supervisor) was explaining to us the pragmatics of language.
Because this blog post is written, rather than spoken (a property which will become important later), I’ll have to demonstrate the point rather less elegantly than she did:
One way to read the sentence above, is to imagine you are John’s mother, and rather desirous of his attention.
“Come here, John!”
Another way to read it, is to imagine you are John’s lover, and rather desirous of his, well, *special* attention.
Come here… John…
If you used the appropriate (or, inappropriate, as it were) tone in your head, I will hopefully have reminded you what you no doubt already know: tone is really important.
And, as you probably also know, communicating involves two (at least) parties: the person sending the message, and the person receiving the message.
Often when we’re discussing tone in writing – or at least the way it’s mostly been discussed following Fiske’s Observer column – we focus on the person who sent the message, the tone and words they used in their contribution, critique, snark. And that’s important – as a writer, you’re responsible for choosing the words you use to convey your point, whether you focus on the person or the work, and if there are potential ambiguities you should probably take extra care to be clear which interpretation you intend. (Great blog post on this point here.)
But these discussions about tone have also reminded me about Meredith (John)’s lesson, and about what you’re doing as a reader (of missives like Fiske’s or Gelman’s). Specifically – and I can’t think of a non-odd way to put this – I think you have a lot of power as a reader. This power comes from your ability to read a sentence in a particular tone. I mean, you just demonstrated this power to John above! (And, I bet if you haven’t met me irl, my voice right now sounds exactly like yours. Creepy, huh?)
The times when I find this super-reader-power most useful, is if I’m engaged in a discussion about The Issues (whatever those might be at the time) with someone – especially maybe with multiple people in a forum like twitter or Facebook – and suddenly someone says something offensive, insulting, incivil, insensitive, snarky, plain outrageous. There are degrees to incivility of course (as Wil points out in this thread) and we’re going to have different levels of sensitivity – but let’s say for now it’s somewhat ambiguous. Since calling out the comment(er) can sometimes derail the conversation in frustrating ways (more on this by Rich on twitter) and I probably would rather continue discussing The Issues, in this situation I just… try to remember John. If necessary, I read the comment in a serious tone and in a jokey tone (emotion regulation ftw – also mentioned in this thread, David), and then I very deliberately and carefully try to respond to the content of the comment. (No, the separation of tone and content isn’t always really neat. But it’s worth a try.)
This, I think, is beneficial in two hypothetical worlds: In World A, in which my interlocutor had the best intent, we have been able to continue the debate. In World B, in which my interlocutor meant to offend, I have frustrated their purpose. Win win!
(You might see this as a trade-off – choosing to ignore the tone (in favour of the content) also means foregoing, in that moment, an opportunity to address it. However, my approach doesn’t preclude taking up the tone issue separately – your friendly World A interlocutor might offer an apology and change their behaviour; your unfriendly World B interlocutor might feel vindicated, defensive, or ashamed, and who knows about their behaviour.)
*I’m sorry, John.