Correcting language instead of responding to an argument reflects a much deeper hierarchy of superiority
“You don’t need to get all worked up over this.” “You’re too angry for me to understand the point you’re making.” “Calm down.”
These phrases are all examples of tone policing, or responding to the presentation of an argument rather than the content of the argument itself. At its best, tone policing is an irritating behavior pattern that blocks meaningful conversation. But at its worst, tone policing is an insidious and sometimes hard-to-grasp method of reinforcing elitism and structural racism.
Tone policing is as rampant online as it is in person. As workplaces, schools, friends, and family groups continue to responsibly social distance, we’re spending more and more time communicating virtually. In these online arenas, tone policing can create space for pile-on responses, derailing a discussion when someone from the privileged side of the conversation focuses on the presentation of an argument rather than its content and all the following responses “pile on” to this language critique.
Tone policing happens often on Twitter, a tool with a structure and space constraints that make it particularly easy to respond in anger to just one part of a comment. Take the following example, from a tweet by Black writer Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want To Talk About Race. A responder to the tweet begins by apparently agreeing with Oluo’s overall point but then derails the conversation by focusing on her belief that Oluo’s word choice is not helpful.
Twitter is a platform that makes it easy to express anger with relative brevity. But that ease can quickly become a problem when individuals respond not to the topic itself but to what they perceive as anger on the part of the commenter. While white folks expressing anger online are regularly met with understanding and space to express their feelings, Black folks expressing anger are met with rampant tone policing and the refusal to even discuss complicated issues under the guise that the author is somehow out of line. As Layla Saeed says in Me and White Supremacy, “a white person’s expression of anger is often seen as righteous, whereas a Black person’s anger is often seen as aggressive and dangerous.” This experience on platforms like Twitter quickly results in the derailment of a conversation and verbal abuse of a tweet’s author.
Dictionary.com defines tone policing as “a conversational tactic” dismissing ideas that are delivered in a negative, emotionally charged manner. This includes anger, frustration, sadness, and so on. But tone policing is far more complex than a simple dismissal. Tone policing establishes hierarchies that have nothing to do with the validity of a specific point and everything to do with the perception of an individual based on the language and emotion displayed as they deliver an argument.
Tone is particularly difficult to convey online. According to the writing tool Grammarly, tone works when “people agree on the meaning behind words.” But these agreements differ across age, race, gender, socioeconomic class, and other divisions. In online discussion spaces, where participants often cross the bounds of many of these categories, placing judgment on the perceived “tone” of a piece of writing rather than the argument the author is making is both dismissive and harmful. And even in spaces where these agreements might be mostly shared, there are many other barriers to correctly interpreting tone. A writer using all lowercase, dozens of exclamation points, and filler words in every other sentence is going to be perceived far differently than a writer using all uppercase and no exclamation points or filler words, even if the two writers are saying the exact same thing.
Tone policing sets up a system wherein certain arguments are considered more valid simply because they align with the rules of the dominant group in a space. These rules might include specific grammar, lack of swearing, passive or active confrontation of issues, and more. Other arguments are thus deemed invalid because they are presented in a format that is unacceptable, which shifts the focus away from the topic and toward the individual.
Tone policing has roots in colonialism and white supremacist practices that hold individuals to a certain standard in order to be considered acceptable. Consider Indigenous children who were forced into boarding schools run by the government or missionaries and forbidden from speaking their native languages, which also separated them from their cultures. Respectability politics is another ancestor of tone policing. This is what happens when marginalized groups are told (internally or externally) that they must “behave better” to receive better treatment from the dominant group. One salient example of this is the 2018 treatment of tennis legend Serena Williams at the U.S. Open final match, where she was provoked and then censured for her justified and highly precedented anger. In The Cut, Rebecca Traister writes that this exceptional behavior on the part of Black women has always been the expectation: “Take the diminution and injustice and don’t get mad about it; if you get mad, you will get punished for it, and then you will be expected to fix it, to make sure everyone is comfortable again.” This expectation labels marginalized groups as worthy of bad treatment unless they align with the dominant group, shedding cultural practices, norms, and even speech patterns to fit in with a standard under which their normal ways of being are considered invalid.
Tone policing sets up a system wherein certain arguments are considered more valid simply because they align with the rules of the dominant group in a space.
These might seem like extreme examples, but they serve to highlight just how damaging it is to hold everybody to an acceptability standard defined and maintained by a dominant group, rather than recognizing and accepting that there is a multitude of ways to approach the world and all are worthy of consideration. Tone policing is a more insidious version of the above examples, and it also shifts the burden of change away from the group in power and onto the marginalized individuals. It essentially says the person with the “tone” is the problem because they don’t fit the artificial and often elitist standard of the space they are occupying.
Everyday Feminism has an incredible comic explaining tone policing, along with some striking visual and textual examples, but a particularly painful one comes from the responses to a tweet by Ijeoma Oluo in 2017 around the movie Get Out and Black hairstyles:
These two responses show racially privileged people dismissing an argument based not on its facts, but on its presentation and a perceived overstepping of the cultural norm of commenting on other people’s appearances. This tone policing shifts the focus of the conversation away from the broader cultural experience Oluo is discussing, avoiding the uncomfortable and important issue of cultural appropriation Oluo has brought up in favor of painting her as ignorant and rude.
Tone policing doesn’t necessarily come with bad intent. Cursing might make some people uncomfortable and unable to focus on the point instead of the phrasing. Slang might confuse some people, and that confusion can make it easier to question the wording rather than the topic itself. Difficult discussions might trigger a “flight” response and lead someone to look for ways out of a conversation. Questioning the person rather than the idea is one way out.
But to have the hard conversations, and to have conversations with people whose experiences don’t necessarily align with our own, we have to learn to avoid this behavior. Here are some steps to help:
- Pause before responding if your response is going to question an individual’s delivery rather than content.
- Ask yourself a series of questions. Why am I irritated? Am I frustrated with an argument or with the technical details of what this person said? If my mother said it, would I feel the same way? If my college-educated brother said it, would I feel the same way?
- If the language is making you feel like you don’t understand the point, clarify by repeating what the person said: “I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. What I’m hearing is…”
- If you overhear someone else questioning delivery instead of content, gently call them in and ask why the language is important. Remind them that if someone is getting emotional about a discussion that’s personal, it’s not anyone else’s place to question this. Rather, it’s important to continue to focus on the topic at hand.
And remember it’s likely going to feel weird to do this! That’s okay. Get used to the discomfort because it’s important to both consider your own biases as well as speak up for others. (But not in place of others.)
Tone policing on the company level is equally damaging and potentially far more dangerous. This behavior can and has become structural in many areas, as has been shown by repeated examples of employees being censored and punished for speaking out against inequality and discrimination: Google employees getting fired for speaking out against racism and sexism and a Yelp employee fired for criticizing the company’s low wages are just two well-known examples. To reverse this trend, companies first have to recognize that they are reacting to the wrong issue. The issue isn’t individuals who speak up against wrongdoing, like discrimination or poor treatment, whether or not they use civil language to discuss it. The issue is the wrongdoing itself. But since this type of behavior is often so common and so infrequently reprimanded, it’s become normal, and thus the burden of civility is pushed off onto those who object to the wrongdoing itself. And second, companies have to protect the employees who speak out against discrimination and other issues, regardless of the language they use to do so. Taking action against those who work in favor of more diverse, more equitable workplaces is a clear sign that the employer doesn’t actually care about having a more diverse, more equitable workplace.
Tone policing online is a thorny issue. The asynchronous nature of most online communication can make it harder to call folks in. Heated discussions — which can easily happen when someone is told to cool it when talking about an issue that is close to their heart — can be hard to follow when in a forum space.
Existing technology could be reconfigured, improved, and reused to help folks retrain themselves as they work at better communication across identity lines. Here are a few suggestions.
- Add the capability to existing autocorrect software to detect questions regarding tone. We already have smart suggestions for spelling, sentence completion, and so on. Many of these types of tone policing questions might involve the same types of words — for example, “calm down,” “too emotional,” “overreacting,” etc. A simple solution might be for the autocorrect software to ask if a user is sure this message is what they want to send. A more complex solution might be to explicitly say “we think this message is tone policing — want to take another look?” Grammarly’s tone detector is one existing example of this type of technology, and there’s room for many more applications like it.
- Create an app or website to help proactive people who want to learn to better communicate with folks across identity lines. This software could present sample discussions using different tones or dialects. One might use lots of curse words, another might use African American Vernacular English (AAVE), one might use words that indicate a Southern accent, and so on. This tool could help train individuals to react to the content of a discussion rather than the presentation of the words.
- Force ourselves to take a moment before reacting to an online discussion where we might tone police someone else. Technology is good at training us: Many people check social media apps constantly because we’ve been trained to do so. We can use this constant on/off behavior to train ourselves to step away from these spaces, however briefly, when engaging in discussions, and in particular in those discussions that make us uncomfortable. By doing so, we can give ourselves space from the emotion of our response and make sure we are responding to the content of an argument rather than the presentation behind it.
Tone policing is a sometimes hard-to-identify issue that forces assimilation to a dominant or elitist paradigm by silencing those who fail or refuse to present their words “nicely.” It’s a tool that more privileged people use to pull attention away from the discussion at hand and put it onto the individual behind the words. It delegitimizes valid arguments simply because they are not occurring under the terms the privileged individual is comfortable with, and it serves as a tool of distraction and suppression. But tone policing is also easy to correct, and doing so will allow for far richer and more productive conversations across experiences.