What Exactly Is Tone Policing And Why Is It Terrible?
People often don’t like the words I say or write because they don’t like the way I say or write them. They don’t like the emotion, intention, passion, and words I use to emphasize all of the above. They tend to ignore the actual message I’m delivering and blame me for not delivering it in a way that was more comfortable for them. As a queer person and LGBTQIA+ educator and advocate, my identity and role in different spaces blur at times; while I can never separate myself from who I am and the work I do, the people who are listening to me and perceiving who I am and what I’m saying changes drastically.
When folks become uncomfortable, they focus on the tone of the words being said and label it as unprofessional, angry, off-putting, or inappropriate. Rather than actually hearing what I’m saying, they try to avoid accountability or problem-solving by advising me to be more approachable or calm. This is tone policing, and it happens most often to marginalized groups and women — especially Black women — and it happens everywhere. It’s bullshit.
I recently provided a training for K- through third grade teachers about how to make their classrooms more inclusive for transgender and gender nonconforming kids. It was LGBTQIA+ allyship 101. The principal asked me not to swear during the training because some of the elementary school teachers don’t like swearing. This wasn’t a threat; it was an admission that some of her staff would be policing my words and then shutting down if they became offended when I didn’t spoon-feed them G-rated language and in a way that didn’t disrupt their naive view of the world.
Instead of focusing on the fact that half of transgender kids will contemplate suicide because they don’t feel supported at home and/or school or that queer kids are disproportionately bullied in the classroom compared to cisgender and straight peers, some of those teachers would only focus on the fact that I swore at some point during my presentation. Instead of focusing on the content, they would only be able to focus on the tone or package in which the content was delivered.
This is just one version of tone policing, and it was used to silence and derail the conversation away from the real topic at hand. Other examples of phrases that have been used against me and others are the following:
“Calm down. I don’t like that tone.”
“You can’t talk to me that way.”
“I wish you weren’t so angry.”
“There’s no reason to be so upset about this.”
“Can’t you say that in a nicer way?”
Tone policing is often done by the more privileged person in the exchange and is used as an intentional way to invalidate a person’s experience and emotions about something that has happened to them because the person with more power doesn’t want to lose the upper hand. It’s also done implicitly when someone’s beliefs about race, gender, and gender stereotypes are challenged.
When a person tells a Black woman speaking passionately about discrimination to change her tone, their negative reaction or feelings of discomfort that get in the way of hearing the Black woman are fueled by racism and sexism. Instead of focusing on the injustice that she is speaking of, a person will do what they can to separate themselves from the role they may have explicitly or implicitly played in her justified feelings. Tone policing happens because it’s too hard for some people to sit in discomfort, acknowledge mistakes, and move toward meaningful conversations and change. Instead of validating the message, tone policing uses thin and privileged excuses to avoid it altogether. Tone-policing is rooted in colonialism and white supremacy.
Tone policing often shifts the blame back to the victim, because the victim’s passion and frustration makes it easy for someone to label them as irrational and too upset to “deal with.” First of all, we need to normalize emotions in everyday settings. People can be upset, animated, and loud without attacking, hurting, or yelling at another person. Emotions run high in many settings, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t be embraced. People who tone police are the ones who decide when and where those emotions are allowed to show up. These people need to be quiet and listen instead of trying to control the way others express their hurt about the harm that is being done to them and their community.
Telling someone to calm down over an issue that is real and important to them is dismissive. And telling someone that what they experienced isn’t a big deal is gaslighting. Queer people, Black people, people of color, folks with disabilities and many other marginalized groups are often told to reframe their emotions and words because those telling us to do so don’t believe our stories because they have never experienced them. You don’t have to experience our struggles to believe our struggles.
I could have also written that statement one of the follow ways:
YOU DON’T HAVE TO EXPERIENCE OUR STRUGGLES TO BELIEVE OUR STRUGGLES.
You don’t have to experience our struggles to fucking believe our struggles.
You don’t have to EXPERIENCE our struggles to BELIEVE our struggles!
If you would have been put off by the implication of the caps, swearing, and/or exclamation point and wished I had said what I said in a nicer, less shouty way, then you would have been tone policing my message. The content didn’t change, just your receptiveness based on your comfort.
It’s a privilege to choose or demand comfort over discomfort. The next time you become uncomfortable with something that another person says, question why you are feeling that way. Are you trying to avoid the topic by pointing out someone’s tone? Are you focusing on the emotions instead of the real issue? Are you using your power to demand respect because you don’t like how something was said, or are you listening to the person who is feeling oppressed?
People are going to be emotionally charged and passionate when their humanity, rights, and lives are at stake. Don’t ask us to calm down. Do more than hear us. Listen to us. Let go of your defensiveness and examine your biases. Listen to our pain and irritation and then ask what you can do to help amplify our message, not quiet it. And then keep friends and co-workers in check. Call people in and call them out when you see someone policing another person’s tone.
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