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.

The return of ‘female email’

Do you remember your 2016 new year’s resolution? Was it to get more exercise, maybe? Give up the demon drink? Spend less time on Facebook and more with your real-life friends? Or was it, perhaps, to send ‘more effective email’, as recommended by the developers of an app called ‘Just Not Sorry’?

This app was intended to empower working women by encouraging them to delete ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ from their emails. If you hovered your mouse over one of the offending words you’d see a pop-up message from a communication ‘expert’, like “just” demeans what you have to say’, or ‘using “sorry” frequently undermines your gravitas’.

But even this ingenious invention seems not to have fixed women’s email problem. Last month the Telegraph ran a piece entitled ‘Sorry to bother you: how women can stop writing emails “like a girl” at work’. It begins with what the writer claims is a typically female email:

Hello! Hope you’re well and that you’re having a lovely week! So sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you could read the below article I’ve written? No worries at all if not – I know you must be super busy. Thank you so much for your time! Best wishes.

These 50-odd words are like a whistle-stop tour of women’s language stereotypes from the last half-century: they include a ‘just’, two ‘sos’, a ‘sorry’, a ‘lovely’, a superpolite indirect request (‘I was just wondering if you could…?’), and a veritable forest of exclamation marks. If the message had only ended with a smiley face emoji we could all have shouted ‘House!’

This much-maligned email style is generally assumed to be something women acquire in their teenage years, carry with them into the workplace, and need remedial instruction to get rid of. But last week a piece on Canada’s Global News website turned that assumption on its head. According to the reporter Meghan Collie, women in workplaces around North America are being told by their bosses, not to stop writing email ‘like a girl’, but on the contrary, to make their emails more girly.

Take Carlee Barackman, a former employee at a tech startup in Detroit who describes her email style as ‘short and to the point’:

Barackman thought she was emailing like everyone else — until her CEO pulled her aside to talk about her “harsh” language… While he didn’t explicitly ask her to soften her writing style, Barackman said it was implied, and she decided against it. “I had work to do and I didn’t want to spend extra time trying to convey my bubbly personality in an email,” she said.

Sometime later, Barackman replied to an email with “okay, thanks,” — no punctuation, no emojis — and her CEO called her out. Barackman agreed to try and “lighten it up,” but she didn’t really know what that meant. It was salt on the wound when Barackman saw an email thread between her male colleagues with writing nearly identical to the style that got her in trouble.

“I remember sitting down at my desk and having no idea who to ask about how to email like a woman. Is emailing like a woman even a thing?” she said. “I felt worried that, by adding extra fluff to an email, I would appear unprofessional, and also worried that, if I kept my replies short and direct, everyone would assume I was angry,” she said.

Carlee Barackman was only one of the many women who responded to the call Meghan Collie put out on Twitter: ‘Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt pressure to use emojis or exclamation points to soften your message?’ Affirmative answers flooded in, and they suggested that emojis and exclamation marks were only the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve been told numerous times to soften up my emails. I use smilies and ! In almost every email, and say please and thank you so much it would be weird if we were in person. I also throw in “just” a lot.

I have no idea what you’re talking about [followed by a screenshot of an email that reads “Awesome! I have been in and made the required edits! Thank you 😊]

I have been told to soften my tone, I notice that men and some women that they favor for whatever reason, are allowed to be rude, abusive and abrupt by email or message. The rest of us…get our tone policed. I have used emoji or “if that makes sense” a lot

I think it also comes down to what men can get away with in emails that women can’t — I once had a male manager write in all caps to get his point across.

I find men can get away with being short, rude and degrading but as soon as a woman does it, they get pulled in for it.

I hate exclamation points. Absolutely hate them. …But yes, I feel forced to use them to blend in & be polite! All the time! I’m so excited about absolutely nothing & here’s the punctuation to prove it!

I have consciously been removing exclamation points and emojis, apologies and just-a-quick-question from my emails for years. Why diminish yourself when you are simply communicating?

I read about how women apologize a lot in emails. Especially with saying the word “just”. I noticed how often I did it and it has been a LONG JOURNEY to remove those things from my email repertoire! No need to excuse myself for doing my job.

I confess I was taken aback by these vignettes.  Although I’ve spent a fair bit of my life observing the policing of language at work, the verbal hygiene practices described in this Twitter thread stand out for both their intrusiveness and their pettiness: managers scrutinizing internal emails in minute detail, and pulling individual employees aside (especially, it seems, if they’re female) to warn them about their tone. How is this a productive use of anyone’s working time?

The women who responded to Meghan Collie were also, for the most part, critical of the practices they described, often stating explicitly that the style they felt obliged to adopt did not reflect their own preferences. Some women clearly resented the tone-policing of their email, and a few reported actively resisting it. Many of these resisters invoked the competing, ‘Just Not Sorry’ genre of verbal hygiene to justify their rejection of ‘weak’ and ‘demeaning’ language. The irony of this–using one kind of sexist bullshit to fight another–isn’t lost on me, but I can’t really quarrel with the perception of ‘Just Not Sorry’ as the lesser of the two evils. ‘Empowerment’ may be a weasel word, but it’s surely preferable to self-abasement.

The ‘Just Not Sorry’ message has had a lot of media exposure because it resonates with the aspirational, ‘lean in’ ethos of the media outlets which commission pieces like the Telegraph’s. Precisely because it can’t so easily be spun as ’empowering’, the ‘Softly Softly’ approach hasn’t attracted the same attention. (I notice that no one has developed an app called ‘Soften Your Message’, or ‘Everything Is Awesome!’, with pop-up messages like ‘if you don’t add a smiley face people will think you’re angry’, or ‘do you love your job? Then say it with !!!’) But despite its low cultural profile. ‘Softly Softly’-style language policing is evidently a reality in many workplaces. What, we might wonder, is this about? Why are women–and, to some extent, men too–being instructed to ‘soften’, ‘lighten up’ or add ‘extra fluff’ to their emails?

On closer inspection, what Meghan Collie and her correspondents call ‘message softeners’–things like exclamation marks, emoji, hedges like ‘just’ and stock phrases like ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘if that makes sense’–seem to serve two main purposes, which can in turn be related to two overarching norms of workplace communication.

First, there seems to be a clear norm prescribing the explicit expression of positive affect and high involvement. It’s not just that negative messages are frowned on: neutral, low-key formulations like Carlee Barackman’s ‘okay thanks’ are not acceptable either. This is what motivates the liberal use of exclamation marks and emoji (or more exactly, a subset of emoji–smileys and thumbs-up signs rather than, say, piles of poo). As conventional signifiers of excitement, enthusiasm, happiness or satisfaction, they inject a note of unambiguous positivity into even very short and banal communications. Accentuating the positive is also the function of phatic formulas like the Telegraph writer’s ‘hope you’re having a lovely week!’ and the hyperbole of responses like ‘Awesome!’ The message is something like, ‘I want you to know I’m thrilled to be at work, delighted to be communicating with you and eager to show I value your contribution’.

The second overarching norm complements the first: it could be glossed as ‘minimize the risk of conflict or offence by avoiding anything that could conceivably be read as angry, critical, overbearing or even just a bit inconsiderate’. This is the purpose served by formulas like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘sorry to bother you’ and ‘just a quick question’ (implying: ‘I know your time is precious’). It’s also the point of appending ‘if that makes sense’ to, for instance, a series of instructions or a piece of critical feedback. Here what’s being ‘softened’ is the presumptuousness of judging others or telling them what to do.

As some readers will doubtless have noticed, the two norms just outlined call for, respectively, the use of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ politeness. (These terms are taken from the work of politeness theorists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson: in their model, positive politeness addresses the desire every person has to be approved of or cared about (prototypical positive politeness formulas include ‘have a nice day’, and ‘congratulations!’), while negative politeness addresses people’s desire not to be imposed on (prototypical formulas include ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’).)  As I’ve explained in previous posts, one of my main beefs with the ‘Just Not Sorry’ brigade is their insistence on treating politeness features as ‘fluff’ or ‘clutter’, things that detract from the message and so impede communication, when in fact they’re essential elements of any interaction between humans. Politeness per se is not a problem: taking out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ is only good advice if your ambition is to sound like a jerk. However, two things about the ‘Softly Softly’ approach do strike me as more problematic.

One problem is that the rules are so inflexible. In everyday life, the way we use linguistic markers of politeness reflects our assessment of how seriously what we’re saying might hurt, offend or impose on the other person. You wouldn’t hedge a request to pass the salt in the same way you’d hedge a request to lend you £100; you wouldn’t congratulate someone as enthusiastically on winning a pub raffle as you’d congratulate them on winning a Nobel Prize. In ‘Softly Softly’ world, however, everything gets the same ‘I’m so excited’ or ‘I’m so sorry’ treatment: as some of Meghan Collie’s correspondents observed, maintaining this high level of excitement or solicitude can be exhausting, and it can also come across as quite bizarre.

The other striking thing is the emphasis placed on expressing positive feelings, about everything and to everyone. In workplaces I do think that’s a novel development–particularly if we’re talking about internal back-office communications (accentuating the positive has a longer history in customer service). And what’s behind it, I would argue, is a combination of recent changes in workplace culture and innovations in digital communication.

Over the last 30 years, many workplaces have become less formal and overtly hierarchical, and more focused on collaborative teamwork. In the current era of precarity, companies also tend to have fewer permanent employees and more short-term contract staff. Arguably, these conditions provide fertile ground for things like the demand to accentuate the positive in dealing with co-workers (which displays your credentials as a ‘team player’) and the pressure to display enthusiasm for routine tasks (if you appear bored or disengaged you’re potentially giving your employer a reason not to renew your contract).

At the same time, more and more workplace interactions that would once have been conducted face-to-face have moved online. Email, though still available for the purposes it originally served in business contexts (sending the digital equivalent of letters and internal memos), has also become a medium for co-workers to ask each other quick questions, give brief reports and engage in rapid-fire problem-solving interactions. And what seems to have happened is that the workplace email has borrowed some of the strategies developed for text-based interaction outside work (e.g. on social media and via instant messaging apps), such as the repurposing of punctuation marks to signal affect. (As any teenager will tell you, not putting an emoji or a ! at the end of a text message risks coming across as angry; ending texts with a traditional full stop is rude because it signifies disapproval–though the students who made me aware of this say they try not to judge clueless old people like their mothers too harshly for this offence.)

Imported into the workplace, however, these strategies can create problems that don’t arise, or not so markedly, in other contexts. Some people find email messages larded with emoji and exclamation marks contextually inappropriate–too informal for professional settings, or too personal for interaction with non-intimates. Others find this mode of expression insincere—and not without reason, since at work you’re very likely to be communicating feelings or attitudes you don’t actually have, to people who also know you’re faking, because they’re doing the same thing themselves. (Has anyone ever read a message like ‘I’m so excited for this afternoon’s meeting!!!’ and taken it as a faithful reflection of the writer’s true feelings?)

In principle, the new workplace norms apply to everyone, men as well as women: one man told Meghan Collie that ‘In a previous role, I was told to be “20% friendlier” in my emails and to soften them with smileys’. In practice, however, many contributors to the thread believed that women’s language was more heavily policed than men’s. Whereas men’s failure or refusal to comply with the rules was frequently tolerated (even, reportedly, when this involved such gross breaches as ranting at length in all caps), women could rarely get away with even slight deviations from the prescribed style.

This double standard isn’t hard to explain. The new workplace verbal hygiene is about fostering co-operation and maintaining harmonious relationships by paying solicitous attention to people’s feelings–a responsibility that has been assigned to women since time immemorial. Women are thought to be ‘naturally’ caring, more emotionally expressive than men and more sensitive to others’ needs. We expect them to do more emotional caretaking, we hold them to higher standards, and we punish them more severely when they fall short.

But as depressing as all this is, the Twitter comments quoted earlier give me hope. They show women aren’t just sucking it up: they are critical of the linguistic demands made in their workplaces, and in some cases they are refusing to ‘soften their message’. This rejection of sexist bullshit has my full and unequivocal support. Rise up, sisters: you have nothing to lose but your !!! 😊😊–if that makes sense.