Thoughts about tone

2012-01-27 13:19

While browsing for something else, I stumbled across a remark by Tyler Cowen observing the benefits of polite discourse. Or at least the disadvantages of rudeness.

Here’s the thing. There’s a very noticeable difference between friendly and hostile discourse, and in the vast majority of cases, friendly is more effective in many ways.

As Kahneman’s most-excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow points out, people tend to substitute proxy measures. People develop a sense for what tone of conversation is acceptable, but most of the time they’re measuring proxies rather than the actual emotional tone, especially in writing.

Tony Campolo’s amazing speech at an evangelical conference makes the point eloquently:

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

He was censured for using inappropriate language, as I understand it. Ne’er has a point been so thoroughly proven by its rebuttal.

What this means is that it’s vital to have control over your tone. If you cuss habitually and without consideration, you are communicating nothing to people who don’t mind, and communicating crassness or stupidity to people who do. But if you never cuss, you’ve cut out a significant portion of the expressive range of your language. Furthermore, if you never cuss, people who do will tend to pick up the impression that you’re prissy; they won’t take you as seriously, and they may well perceive you as holding them in contempt, whether or not you do. The willingness to meet people partway on language usage is a very powerful tool for making friends.

Similarly, if you are constantly hostile in conversations, you accomplish nothing. But… If you are never hostile, if you dare not give offense, you are again denying significant expressive range.

I think it’s vitally important to be able to disagree in a civil manner. But I also think it’s useful to remember that you have the option of choosing not to dignify a particularly odious position with a polite response. This is a completely ineffective communications tactic if used all the time; it makes you out to be totally lacking in self-control, and probably a jerk. But if you are able to be respectful and kind 95% of the time, when people see you drop that and tell someone to fuck off, it does have great communicative power.

My mom points out: All of this includes also baseline references for the people you’re talking to, as well as your existing knowledge of the person you’re hearing talk. It is complicated. My tumblr blog is written much more “offensively” than this one, but both are much more cuss-friendly than a lot of people I know would tend to write; on the other hand, they’re tuned for some of the people I am trying to reach as readers. I can be more polite (and be judged inauthentic), or more coarse (and be judged callow or ineloquent). Rock, meet hard place. Hard place, meet rock.

As with most of life, choice of tone rewards conscious and intentional decision-making.

Peter Seebach




  1. I curse very rarely, and tend to use more UK than American expressions (“oh bloody hell”, for example). This makes American curses very very effective when I use them, because my friends know that I am very serious or very upset.

    I don’t see cursing as inappropriate in itself; I see it as sometimes situationally inappropriate, if that makes sense. Pain and fury are excellent reasons to use expletives; the fact that your coffee is thirty seconds late is not. Sometimes cursing is the best way to shake someone out of their complacency at a situation, though, as in Campolo’s speech.

    If someone around me curses at everything, I’m likely to tune it out as background noise, since they use it to flavor their speech rather than to make a point.

    — AshtaraSilunar · 2012-01-27 21:25 · #