Tone deaf

A month ago, the psychologist Terri Apter tweeted

“I don’t like your tone,” is something said either to a child or a woman. Could @wordspinster confirm or comment?

@Wordspinster is me, but I didn’t see the tweet straight away, and it’s taken me a while to formulate an answer. The short version, as usual, is ‘it’s complicated’. So in this post I’ll try to dig a bit deeper. 

What prompted Apter’s tweet was a much-discussed exchange in Parliament between Matt Hancock, Conservative Secretary of State for Health, and Rosena Allin-Khan, a Labour MP and shadow minister for mental health who is also a working NHS doctor. Allin-Khan had asked Hancock an obviously critical question (using the third person, incidentally, because the arcane rules of the UK Parliament forbid MPs to address one another directly):

Does the health secretary acknowledge that many frontline workers feel that the government’s lack of testing has cost lives, and is responsible for many families being torn apart in grief?

He replied:

I welcome the honourable lady to her post… I think she might do well to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary’s book in terms of tone.

This was clearly intended as a putdown. The ‘Shadow Secretary’ is Jonathan Ashworth MP, who is white, male and senior to Allin-Khan. He is Hancock’s opposite number in the Labour shadow Cabinet, a post he has held for several years, whereas she is a recently appointed junior minister. So, first Hancock drew attention to Allin-Khan’s relative inexperience by welcoming her to her post; then he implied she didn’t know how to conduct herself properly in her new role, and suggested she should take her cue from the behaviour of her senior colleague.

But his strategy backfired: the criticism he directed at Allin-Khan was immediately turned back on him. This was partly because of the perception that his condescension was strongly gendered—as Glamour magazine put it, ‘steeped in micro-aggression and misogyny’.  Harriet Harman, no stranger herself to the gentlemanly sexism of male politicians, tweeted that there was ‘something creepy about a man telling a woman to watch her tone’. Pragya Agarwal, writing in the Independent, called attention to the specific ways in which women of colour get upbraided for their tone, noting that ‘longstanding tropes, such as the “angry black woman”, harm some communities more than others’. 

That wasn’t Hancock’s only miscalculation. Some people who didn’t pick up on the sexism/racism issue were critical of what he said for other reasons. It’s one thing for a Cabinet minister to patronise a more junior member of the opposing party, but another to do it to someone whose experience of actually treating Covid-19 patients gives her a far better claim than the minister to know what ‘frontline workers feel’. His dismissive response struck some as disrespectful not just to Allin-Khan, but to ‘our NHS heroes’ more generally. To many it also seemed irresponsible and petty for a minister presiding over the highest death-toll in Europe to scold a medically-qualified colleague for the tone of her question rather than giving her a serious answer.  

But that, of course, was the point. As the forensic linguist Claire Hardaker has also explained, tone policing (or as I will call it here, for reasons I’ll explain later, tone criticism) is a distraction strategy: it aims to shift attention from the substance of what is being said to the manner in which it is said, while also, as Hardaker notes, staking a claim to the moral high-ground. It’s one of many strategies politicians may use to avoid answering questions or buy time to plan a response; but it needs to be deployed with care, since it can easily give the impression that either you’re too thin-skinned for the job you’re in or else you haven’t got a credible answer. The more powerful a speaker is, in fact, the greater the risk that their criticism of someone’s tone will be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

That was how it went in this case. You could argue that the distraction strategy was partially successful, in that the subsequent conversation did focus more on the tone issue than on the substantive question about testing.  But that wasn’t unequivocally a win for Hancock, because it was his tone, not Allin-Khan’s, that attracted most negative comment.   

Terri Apter’s tweet raised the question of whether remarks like Matt Hancock’s are always or most often addressed to women. In Parliament, at least, the answer is no. A quick search of Hansard, the official Parliamentary record, revealed that references to tone are fairly frequent: a search for all uses of the word in the House of Commons since 2015 yielded 1835 results. I only had time to look closely at the first 100, and in this small sub-sample I found eleven examples of tone criticism directed towards an identifiable individual. Two involved men criticising a woman’s tone; three involved women criticising a man’s tone. The majority, six, were cases of men criticising other men.

Obviously these proportions (which may or may not be replicated in the sample as a whole) must reflect the fact that women are still a minority of all MPs. A more careful, full analysis might hypothetically show that female MPs are more likely than male ones to attract negative comments on their tone. But it’s safe to say that you don’t have to be female to be a target for this kind of criticism. 

It’s also clear that tone criticism isn’t only directed downwards, from more senior to more junior politicians. Backbenchers criticise ministers’ tone as well as vice-versa; and the highest-ranking politicians criticise each other. We had an example last week at Prime Minister’s Question Time, when Boris Johnson responded to a question from Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, by saying ‘I’m surprised he should be taking that tone’. In this case the status differential is slight to non-existent: both are white men, and in terms of rank they are peers (even if Johnson as the leader of the governing party has more real-world power). Their exchange makes it even clearer when and why powerful people resort to tone criticism–and how that move can backfire.

Starmer’s question, which like Allin-Khan’s to Matt Hancock was really a criticism framed in the interrogative, concerned the importance of public trust for managing the Covid-19 crisis. He cited a recent survey which found that trust in the government, and in Johnson himself, had plummeted in the previous week. Though he made no explicit reference to Dominic Cummings, everyone knew this shift in public opinion was connected to the controversy about Johnson’s chief political adviser, who had not resigned or been sacked following what most of the public regarded as gross breaches of the lockdown rules. Johnson knew that too, and since it’s a subject he’s keen to avoid, he reached for the distraction strategy of criticising the questioner’s tone. But what exactly was he talking about? What do people who make this criticism mean by ‘tone’?

This brings me to the reason why I’m talking about ‘tone criticism’ rather than ‘tone policing’. ‘Tone policing’ as I understand it refers specifically to the policing of emotional expression, the classic case being a demand that someone should refrain from making others uncomfortable by expressing their legitimate anger. That’s one kind of tone criticism, and it’s useful to have a term for it, but it’s also important (to me, at least) not to expand that term’s scope too far. I particularly want to avoid the implication that when women are criticised for their tone this is always or usually about them being, in someone’s opinion, too angry or too emotional. Without denying that can be an issue, we shouldn’t assume that it’s invariably what’s at stake.

‘Tone’ in everyday usage can mean a lot of things (which is very convenient for those who want to criticise it without going into the specifics of the alleged offence). Often it has more to do with, in technical language, stance–a speaker’s attitude to the addressee or the topic under discussion–than affect–a speaker’s mood or emotional state. In political discourse many judgments on ‘tone’ relate primarily to what kind of move is being made (e.g. agreement or disagreement, congratulation or criticism), what stance that implies and whether the critic considers it legitimate.  

In the two cases I’ve talked about so far it would be hard to argue that the targets of criticism spoke angrily. It could perhaps be argued that Rosena Allin-Khan used emotive language, in that her question included the phrases ‘cost lives’ and ‘torn apart in grief’; but that can’t be said of Keir Starmer, a former prosecutor whose style is frequently described as ‘forensic’. If you listen to a recording of his question you’ll notice that his delivery is calm and controlled: sometimes he uses heavy stress and a noticeably slow tempo for emphasis, but there’s no shouting or extreme fluctuations in pitch. So when Johnson complained about him ‘taking that tone’, what he seemed to be objecting to was the simple fact that Starmer had adopted a critical stance, as opposed to one supportive of the government.

A number of media commentators thought so too, observing that Johnson’s performance (which did display anger: one sketch-writer described it as ‘defensive and snappy’) showed his inability to tolerate criticism. He treats all non-supportive questions, however they’re delivered, as illegitimate challenges or personal attacks. Matt Hancock has a similar approach, as was demonstrated not only by his treatment of Rosena Allin-Khan, but also by a more recent interview on Sky News, where he laughed uproariously and called it ‘priceless’ when the presenter Kay Burley had the temerity to ask a question about the continuing problems with testing—something most viewers, as she immediately pointed out, were unlikely to regard as a laughing matter.

I honestly don’t know if this behaviour reflects an outsize sense of entitlement-slash-grievance (‘how dare these ingrates pick on me’), or if it is purely cynical. Johnson and Hancock, after all, must know that it’s the job of the Opposition, and of the media, to subject the government to critical scrutiny. That’s the purpose of Prime Minister’s Questions, and the point of interviewing ministers on TV. Complaining about the ‘tone’ of questioning simply because it’s adversarial (especially when it happens in the House of Commons, an adversarial forum by definition) does not make senior politicians look statesmanlike; it makes them look churlish and out of their depth.  

This is a point to bear in mind whenever we’re faced with yet another example of a man criticising a woman’s tone–whether he uses the actual word ‘tone’, like Matt Hancock, or tells her to ‘calm down, dear’ like the former prime minister David Cameron, or reaches for the codewords used recently about the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis by Daniel Kawczynski MP, who tweeted that he’d declined to be interviewed on the programme because he found Maitlis ‘extraordinarily aggressive, unnecessarily rude, biased & confrontational to point of intimidation’. (If he’d only added ‘strident’ we’d have a full house.) Yes, it’s a putdown, an attempt to embarrass or shame (something women, for all kinds of historical and cultural reasons, are often particularly susceptible to); and yes, there’s often a double standard at work (Boris Johnson doesn’t have to keep calm; Jeremy Paxman was respected for his aggressive interview style). But when we make those points (as we should, every time), let’s not forget to add that this is a strategy used by the insecure and less-than-competent to distract attention from their own shortcomings.

‘I don’t like your tone’ is something powerful people say when they’ve been put under pressure, they haven’t got a winning argument, and they are hoping to silence criticism by other means. But it doesn’t always work and it can easily backfire. Rosena Allin-Khan wasn’t shamed; Keir Starmer wasn’t distracted; Emily Maitlis wasn’t silenced; Kay Burley wasn’t amused. And a large section of the public was on their side. Read the room, guys: if anyone’s got a tone problem, you have.