Tone and Suggestion

Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty has brought me back to thinking about poetics: the notion that what the language formally means is only part of the message carried by a linguistic utterance. Indeed, a great deal goes on in what is suggested rather than what is explictly said.

In particular, I’ve been reflecting on something that tends to be called “the tone argument” online. Generally it looks like this: Person A speaks, and Person B criticises their tone instead of responding to the content of what Person A said. (“Your ideas would get more purchase if you were calmer/gentler/more professional.”)

I think there are some situations where this is an appropriate response, e.g. if you sought a critique of something and you got a scathing reply. But there are other situations where criticising the tone derails communication. If you cry out that something is hurting you, it does not help if someone criticises your tone while ignoring your pain.

With a critique, it’s because the point is to help a person improve something they’ve made. (As I see it, if you think the thing is so awful that no amount of work can save it, there’s no point in offering a critique.) The message needs to be: I’m bringing up these flaws because, if you address them, it will strengthen your work. A supportive tone can get this across, but a harsh tone might change it to: These flaws make your work worthless, and there is nothing you can do to fix them – which is not helpful.

On the other hand, when someone lashes out against an experience of social injustice (for instance), part of what they’re saying is this thing makes me angry. They need you to understand that feelings of being threatened, disrespected, made insecure, and all the other awful things that are tied up in anger have been provoked – and that the thing causing these feelings is a problem that needs to be addressed. To tell them to divest the anger from the statement is to ignore that their anger is important. It says, My desire not to feel provoked as I’m reading holds more weight than the suffering you are facing.

In both cases, the tone is part of the message. Communication breaks down when this is not understood.