Linda Lewis Griffith

It’s not just the words, it’s the tone

Every oral communication has two components. The first one is the words. They are concrete and easily understood. They could be quoted again and again and elicit the same response.

The second part is tone. This is the ambience in which the words are presented. It may be delivered verbally, such as a lilting voice or a shout. It may be displayed with body language, such as rolling eyes, slumped shoulders or a stifled yawn.

Sometimes tone aligns perfectly with the verbiage and serves to reinforce what’s being said. When your dear friend greets you with a hug and smile and says, “Oh, it’s been way too long!” there’s no question about her warm feelings and the sincerity of her words.

If, on the other hand, you ask your girlfriend how she’s doing and she responds with a terse “Fine,” you know that her words and behaviors don’t match. You’re not sure how she’s feeling. The interaction is confusing and stressful.

We may be fully aware of our tone. For instance, we may recognize that we are giddy and be comfortable with our lighthearted laughter.

At other times, tone flies below the radar. We don’t understand the impact our words have on those who hear them. A man may think he’s being funny but his kids are hurt by his condescending tone. A young woman may believe it’s her right to express her feelings unaware that others cower in the shadow of her outbursts.

Tone is most likely to be convoluted when it conveys uncomfortable emotions. The expression of joy and pleasure creates minimal personal angst. Psychologically charged sentiments, such as anger, frustration, inadequacy or disapproval, are more difficult to address. We may overtly deny their presence yet express them in our tone.

Even when our actions are challenged and a loved one says, “You sound like you’re mad at me,” we may still be uncomfortable with our feelings and reply with conflicting messages that don’t make sense.

It’s easy to see how this separation between tone and verbiage occurs. From our earliest years we learn that certain emotions are unsafe to express. We must control our anger on the playground. We need to get along if we want to have friends. We must behave appropriately at the office in order to hold a job.

Tone is also something we learn. If we live in a home where people are generally respectful and whose words and behaviors usually jibe, we’re likely to follow suit. If, on the other hand, we hear sarcasm, hostility and unhappiness, or are raised in a chaotic environment where communication and affect seldom mesh, we’re apt to have trouble being congruent when we speak.

Self-control is necessary for socialization. The degree to which we manage all facets of our personalities plays a key role in our success in life.

Tips for reining in your voice

Need help dealing with a destructive tone? Follow these suggestions to get it under control.

Notice what you’re doing. Pay attention to the way you’re speaking to others. Do they respond well to what you say to them? Would you like to be addressed the same way?

Enlist help. Ask co-workers, friends and family members about your tone. They’re the ones you speak to most often and will be able to provide you with accurate feedback.

Identify underlying emotions. Be truthful. Observe the personal dramas constantly playing out in your head. They’re most likely the issues you’re struggling with on a daily basis and the ones that elicit peevish responses.

Improve your anger-management skills. A negative tone is often the result of latent anger. The madder you feel, the more it comes out in your voice. Take full responsibility for your own anger; don’t blame it on anyone else.

Choose how to express your emotions. You needn’t feel victimized by your emotions. They’re completely within your control. Name the exact sentiment that you’re experiencing. Take a few deep breaths and notice how it feels. Explore where it came from. You may choose to tell someone else about your feeling. You may write about it in a journal. You may ultimately opt to let it go and not allow it any more bandwidth on your psychic air space.

Communicate with respect. Talk to others about difficult topics when you’re calm. Avoid hurtful or aggressive words. Elicit their help in addressing mutual difficulties.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit