Changing the Tone

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Have you ever noticed that whenever someone writes something online (particularly in email, or on a mailing list) that later comes back to haunt them, there’s an immediate rush to blame “tone”?

In the past few months, I’ve had not one, not two, but multiple instances of “tone” being used as an excuse to back away from a statement one no longer wants to support. I’ve even had people try to make excuses for my own forceful replies with “tone.”

Let’s be clear. I’m a writer, I know all about tone. I choose my words with particular care to ensure that my intent is not only clearly expressed, but put forth exactly the way I mean it to sound. I don’t get namby-pamby about it. Either I meant what I said, or I didn’t. And since I don’t have the time to write things I don’t mean, you can generally count on the former.

Clarifications of position don’t count. If a position can be interpreted in multiple factual ways based on my words, and I need to clear up my actual thoughts on the matter, or explain how it relates (in my opinion) to another point that’s been raised, that’s different. I’m talking about instances in which I state a response forcefully, and then stand accused of misreading “tone”, or of not meaning what I just said because it’s “so difficult to interpret tone online.”

Speaking Swahili I’m not, and we aren’t using a mutual second or third language to communicate, either. I said what I mean and I mean what I say. Is “tone” being used as a passive-aggressive exit strategy from unpleasant communication? A means of avoiding conflict by blaming a neutral “third party” (i.e. the internet)? Would you treat non-electronic written communication in the same way? Is face-to-face communication now the only valid means for expression of distaste?

In other words, if you disparage something I’ve done, is my response valid only if I call you out into the parking lot to “discuss”? If an email falls in the woods and no one hears it, did its author really mean what was said?

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