Communication — 12 March 2006
How ‘the tone’ impacts communication

One of the most common communication barriers for some couples is labeled: ‘the tone’. Both men and women complain that though the messages delivered by their mates may not seem offensive, the tone of voice accompanying some statements is hurtful.

Communication between people is composed of verbal and nonverbal messages. Our stance, posture, body movement, tone of voice, and our facial muscles correlate with certain emotions. The verbal part is only a small fraction of the delivery. In his book, “The Relationship Cure”, Dr. Gottman reports a study that found that people relied on the spoken word only for 7 percent of their assessment of what was conveyed, while they relied 38 percent on tone of voice and speech patterns and 55 percent on facial expressions and body language.

Charles Darwin’s nineteenth century worldwide study of communication patterns found that people everywhere used the same expressions to convey the same emotions. In 1970, research psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen at the University of California, San Francisco, supported Darwin’s theory by having people in many cultures identify the emotional state of a person through photos. Facial presentations reflecting happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and contempt were universally recognized.

Some people are better than others at being able to perceive emotions through observing the facial and body presentations of others. It is also clear that the better we know an individual, the more likely we are to assess his/her emotional state from visual and auditory clues. However, we must use great caution not to rely on our impressions without first confirming them with the individual.

The question, “Why are you angry?” may be a non-judgmental inquiry, but may be defensively responded to with, “I am not angry!” despite the fact that the tone of the responder is loud, his/her face is red, the jaw is tight and the eyes piercing. The individual may deny his/her anger due to the resentment about being told what s/he feels.

At times, the reading of one’s facial expressions or tone may be misinterpreted. It may be perceived as controlling, while it may be fearful, it may be heard as disrespectful while it may be anxious. Many times the outward manifestation is covering deeper personal discomfort. For example, people who feel frustrated with themselves may be more critical of others about the very issue. When she misplaced the family calendar, he became outraged with her ineptness, on the very day that he failed to find a copy of his report for presentation to his staff at work.

Though our feelings are often evident in our faces and voices, it is still a kinder way to deal with it by asking rather than assuming. “I get the feeling that you are very frustrated with me right now, can you tell me what it is about?” Or, “When you use this tone of voice I feel discounted and disrespected, can you say it in a way that I can hear it better?” Using “I”, the first person statements, is more likely to diffuse rather than inflame the speaker.

“The tone” is often heard as the critical, exasperated and perhaps even contemptuous attitude of the speaker. The listener is hurt by the disrespect and is not likely to hear the words. Any statement that may seem neutral on paper can become very offensive if spoken with a sarcastic, demeaning tone of voice. The speaker knows it, the listener is pained by it and it is obvious to any outside observer. It is futile to deny this as an offensive sound.

“The tone” may also evoke an association with childhood when one was spoken to with authority by a parent. This may create a feeling of diminished status and powerlessness, which interfere with adult responsiveness.

In some pairs there is an individual who tends to use ‘the tone’ on a regular basis. Sometimes that person dismisses the harm done by denying the attitude or by ascribing undue sensitivity to the offended mate. Neither of these approaches is productive. Unless respectful conversation can take place between two individuals, communication is unachievable.

• Even when you are extremely frustrated, be aware of your tonal presentation to avoid hurting your mate.
• If your partner finds your tone offensive, it needs to be changed.
• If you are the recipient of “the tone”, ask your mate to say it so you can hear him/her better.
• Remember that disrespect and contempt interfere with adult communication, while a respectful voice fosters understanding and change.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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