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The reason for misunderstanding– many times.

The National Conversation

It’s not just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it
Shoba Narayan
May 15, 2013
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My nephew Harsha is a remarkable boy. He is just 12 years old but has figured out an element that is vital to communicating: tone.
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The left, more logical, side of the brain processes content, experts say, but the right, more instinctive side processes tone. Content is important, but tone perhaps more so.
Think about it. Tone is often the reason people misunderstand each other. Tone is why they can take unreasonable dislikes to each other.
It was her tone of voice, as much as what she said, that got Margaret Thatcher labelled the “Iron Lady”.
It is because of their tone of voice, often, that we think of people as arrogant, flaky, humble, or funny.
If content is the architecture, tone is the interior decoration and fittings. When all else fails, when we are short on content, we can make do with tone.
This is a problem because tone is hard to teach. Some young people, such as Harsha, understand it intuitively, but an ear for tone isn’t genetic or natural. It must be learnt, sometimes painfully.
Trying to teach my child this skill, I have told her that people hate bald statements, so whenever she refuses something, she should give an explanation, which shows a consideration for the other person’s point of view. Children are taught to say, “No, thank you,” but not to explain why. Explanations tell the other person that you take them seriously.
Example: I offered some children a plate of cut-up mangoes. Several said “no, thank you” but one boy added that he would go swimming soon, and needed an empty stomach, a more considerate response.
Thinking about the other person’s point of view is particularly important in the online age, when so much of our communication is with people we have never met. Writing without a simple greeting may make for more efficient emails but unless the other person really knows you, it can come across as abrupt, even arrogant.
Etiquette works symbiotically with tone. Writing a one-line email works when you are conversing with the person on a regular basis, but appears rude when you are writing to someone with whom you haven’t interacted in a long time.
Countries have tones, people have tones. Why do we think Americans are easy-going, and Germans are perfectionists, the Swiss precise and the Italians emotional? It all has to do with the way they speak more than what they actually say.
Tone is less vital in legal, scientific, and medical communication. When you present a scientific paper or a legal case, content counts. You can choose the most optimistic tone, but it will not make a culpable suspect less guilty. Tone hardly matters when you are presenting an academic paper on cancer, but it is everything when you are telling a family that a loved one has cancer.
Most people who gravitate towards marketing or sales naturally have a good sense of tone. It goes hand-in-hand with people skills.
But in professions that presume to value content, logic, and analysis, tone can fall by the wayside. Law, engineering, and any profession that has to do with numbers come to mind.
Another area where tone becomes important is assertiveness. It takes a long time to figure out how to be assertive without being rude.
As a parent, I find that I have to teach my children three kinds of assertiveness. When speaking to a parent or anyone to whom they are very close, such as a grandparent, tone matters little. They can express themselves freely and emotionally.
When they need to assert themselves against other individuals such as a teacher or an elder, a flat tone is key because it delivers the message without seeming to be impertinent.
The third situation is with peers, when they should make their position clear. My brother once told me that his erstwhile boss had taught him an invaluable lesson: the entire office should always know exactly what he felt about any given project. There should be no confusion. This is useful advice when I deal with the household staff who lubricate my life. If I tell them how I feel, it makes life easier for everyone.
As a mother, I tell my daughters that they can be tone-deaf with their peers, their friends. They need to maintain a flat tone with their grandparents. And with me, their parent, tone is everything. They may tell me that they don’t care, but the way they say it tells me that they do care indeed. And I can hear that.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir.


  1. Agree, particularly with the part about being humble v/s sounding humble. Deeply resonates with what I wrote on Hijab.

    For parents I totally agree they should impart values to their children. If the value is imparted correctly the tone will follow it.

    Shoba your deal is that you have content and tone, but the content has limits and when sharp/er readers mount a successful challenge to the content, then you sometimes cop out by saying their tone was berating etc. and drop the subject. (Another reader pointed this out in the Room TO Read debates i.e. nobody was berating you or critiquing you for the sake of it.) Also I don’t think this has to do with the essential substance of your work, rather I think it’s because you (like any other writer) doesn’t have unlimited time to research every nook and cranny of the subject. So in a sense some readers have to accept this if they want to get maximum enjoyment from your work.

    I personally find this blog interesting as there are so many people like Vinay, NS, Gorayan who have their own bits of wisdom and perspective to add. It’s like a bhelpuri – Shoba is the base and all these readers are the various spices and sauces to jazz it up.


    1. Rawal: Thanks. Your comments have been alluded to by many in these pages so your insights are valuable. I agree with you about the research bit, particularly since I come from a family of men– father, father in law– who hold facts and content above everything.
      My only quarrel with you (of course, right? there has to be a quarrel :)) is the bit about humility. You know that humility and the cultivation of it is a hard and deeply personal thing. My only addition to that is that sounding humble (not for bullshit reasons but for “trying to be as authentic as possible because you believe that sounding humble will nudge you along the path to true humility” reasons will help in that quest.
      Studies have shown that if you put a pencil between your teeth to imitate a smile (read it in Kahnemann’s Thinking fast and slow), your mood will actually improve.
      Ergo, The way you sound may actually lead to true feeling.


  2. I totally disagree with this (which is perhaps as expected) πŸ˜€

    Content – the message – is the most important IMHO πŸ™‚ Tone matters more than what people think (yes I freely admit this) but does not trump content.

    Thatcher was labeled the Iron Lady because of her remark that the Russians would put guns before butter to dominate the world. Anyone who listens to her speech would concede she had a properly English understated tone, but that was bubkus when they gave her the label. “Americans are easygoing” is a general, but not universal statement. The top I-bankers, industrialists, government officials, in short the movers and shakers, are shrewd and ruthless and (mostly fair) and uncompromising in their agenda. That is the unflagging American spirit which counts for their achievement.

    Tone should follow content, not precede it. This is an important value. It is important to teach children to be humble before elders, to be equal and firm with peers and to be considerate with the less-privileged. If they acquire those value then their tone will follow it. But merely acquiring the tone means squadoosh. I totally disagree with the “if short on content make do with tone” sentiment, this effectively tells (children, for example) to pretend to be humble when actually not. I would rather have that discussion and get them to be humble from within and then work on the tone to express it properly.

    Content without tone is ineffective. Tone without content is, like crocodile tears, superficial. “If food is bad then presentation won’t save it but if food is really good then presentation won’t destroy it”. (This was written by another poster on your blog.) That poster said it best that people would prefer good food presented simply over mediocre food served over silver.

    Shoba I think you are unusually sensitive to tone because (I feel) you are a sensitive and emotional person. This comes across clearly in your writings esp. on travel, food, culture etc becuase it is an important highlight to the content. But as that poster pointed out sometimes the writing strays into rah-rah (e.g. namedropping in that article) land and needs a gear shift to come back.


  3. To add up, Tone matters much when you’re speaking to a stranger than a familiar someone that knows your nature, better. Example, If you have a mercurial nature, an impulsive yeller and are quick to calm down, the familiar listener will make allowance for your tonal dissonance, will wait to study your considered reaction post restoration of your normalcy.


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