Lets Talk About “Tone” – Marc MacYoung


Someone tried the ‘tone police’ approach to shutting down conversation on me. Here’s my response.

I’m not a big fan of people deciding they don’t have to talk anymore — for whatever reason, but especially when those reasons are self-righteous and emotional. I’ve kind of bled a few times when folks do that. So I’m a little ‘sensitive’ to when I see that attitude developing — no matter who is doing it — because I know where that road leads.

With that in mind, let’s talk about my tone.

I make a distinction between talking to, talking with, “treating with,” talking at and shutting down conversations. (Another way to start to look at this idea is through speech registers.) The first three are about information exchange, negotiation and a whole lot more. Generally they are benign and functional.

I’m going to have to break the order…

“Talking At” is at best lecturing, at worst an attempt to dominate and control. It is information only going one way and no questioning, debate or discussion allowed. (It is something that extremists of ALL sides are guilty of — as are their minions and cannon fodder…excuse me…followers.) It has — unfortunately — become entirely too common in our divide and polarized nation. “We’re right, you’re wrong so shut up while we tell you how it is.” (There’s also a large Kipling-esque “It’s true because we say it’s true” element involved.)

“Shutting down” is another all too common tactic these days. There are two common strategies. One is to find some excuse to dismiss, ignore or not listen to the person. The excuse can be large or small, from religion, politics, sex, or tone. Two is to attack, insult, label and basically cause such a fuss as to drive the other person away. Again, common tactic on ALL sides these days.

“Treating with” is an older term that has unfortunately been lost to many in our modern world. It’s basically how two armed camps deal with each other to avoid blood spatter on the walls. Contrary to what many people think there are all kinds of rules of etiquette and behaviors that armed and violent peoples engage to avoid trouble with each other. It’s not just that treating with is a lost art, but many people have lost the understanding of why it’s needed. Treating with can range from extremely forma to ritualized behavior to just pretending the other person doesn’t exist in the room with you (while both of you steadfastly stay on your side of the room.)

Treating with can very much have a tone (as do all speech registers). As it is very much a part of negotiation between hostile parties, there will be issues and problems addressed. What it is definitely NOT is insult filled, hostile and — this is the tricky part — blaming and shaming. Yet at the same time it must address some very touchy subjects.

If my tone came across as — and I quote — condescending and narrowminded — then I apologize for the discomfort that might cause. It is not my intent to hurt or insult. Yet we are still faced with this division and hostility between different groups. A division that has been made greater by not just talking at each other and finding excuses to shut down conversations, but has actively crossed into insults, slurs, contempt and attacks. Everybody is pretty touchy right now. So I will again apologize if I came across as insulting.

(There, you’ve just seen an example of treating with. But here’s the $64,000 Question: Do you know how to respond within the context of treating with? )

I ask because, I’ve seen a growing — and I’m not being hyperbolic here — danger of extremists pushing all sides closer to violence. From inside these camps/bubbles/strongholds, it doesn’t seem like it. In fact, it just looks like self-evident truths. Truths that the only way someone couldn’t understand is by being a stupid, ignorant ______(insert label here) — if not outright evil. And we DON’T have to treat with those people because of it.

In the mean time, people are being pushed more and more towards isolation, dogma and extremes by those inside their OWN camps. Many of the tactics being used seem so obvious, so right, so self-evident that people don’t recognize they’re actually shutting down conversation with those who think different and digging themselves further and further into an entrenched position.

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