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It's not just what you say that matters, it's how you say it

Tone is often the reason people misunderstand each other.

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.

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.

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