A Brief Reflection on Tone Policing

It was a warm Texas Summer day and I showed up early for a meeting that I had. In the midst of talking I was given a look. I remember the look that was given by the person I was speaking with, because I had seen it before from the same person and from hundreds of others. I made a mistake and let my guard down and sure enough seconds later the person I was talking chided me for being hyperbolic about a unit of time measurement. There was an unwritten code in that office about what I was or was not allowed to say in our “heart-to-heart” discussion. In that moment, I knew that it was not a space where I was allowed to be all of me; so I did what many people who have been minoritized in this world do, I code-switched. (Code-switching is a device people, mainly people of color use to make themselves more palatable to primarily White audiences such as a change in speaking, annunciation of words, body movements, and facial expressions, etc.) What happened to me in that room has a name: tone policing. Tone Policing is not unique to me; I would believe that all marginalized people are regularly tone policed. What is tone policing? Tone Policing is what occurs when the substance of an argument, statement, question, observation, reflection, and at times even statistical data is ignored because of a perceived tone that is deemed unacceptable by hearer/reader. Rather than address the substance of the argument the tone is attacked. It is very similar to the ad hominem fallacy, but rather than outright attacking the person, it attacks aspects about who they are and the way they present themselves.

We have all seen examples of this over the internet, someone will say “Their killing our kids” and rather than addressing the killing a know-it-all with something to prove will pop up and say, “You used the wrong ‘they’re’!” Meanwhile the kids are still being killed and the grammar lesson is distracting from the subject matter.

Most often tone policing pops up when controversial issues such as: racism, police brutality, LGBTIQ rights, politics, etc. While these topics of discussion bring it up the most, tone police officers are always on duty and finding ways to correct and silence minoritized people. That isn’t to say that tone police officers are even aware that they are doing it, in fact many are completely unaware they are even doing it.

Anyone can accidentally join the Tone Police Department so it is necessary for all of us to ask these questions before responding:

1. What is the substance of this person is saying?

Rather than instantly responding, ask a follow up question, try and see what the person is actually saying before replying.

2. Am I attacking the argument or the way the argument was presented?

It’s very easy to get distracted by the way someone has made us feel or the way an argument, rather than talk about what the other person is bringing up. I invite you to take a few seconds before responding and think about what you are going to say. Really count to five then speak.

3.  Am I honoring the other person?

In the scenario I mentioned above, the person I met with was not honoring my voice, and rather than listening to what I was saying, this person felt that the hyperbole rather than the actual substance was worth addressing.

4. What is my goal in this conversation?

If your goal is to focus on grammar, and sentence structure, rhetorical devices, and other minute details of the English language then perhaps you should consider becoming a proofreader or english teacher. But if your goal is to communicate with another person, focus on what is being communicated.

I also think it is important to not that if you are made uncomfortable in a conversation, there is a strong chance that the other person is also experiencing discomfort in the midst of being vulnerable. This person trusts you to tackle the argument they are presenting, not to tackle them.