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Why It’s Important To Challenge Tone Policing

Whether we’ve encountered this at some point ourselves or been guilty of doing it to others; being aware of how/when tone policing is used will help to develop and improve valuable listening and advocacy skills

Tone policing is a conversational and anti-debate tactic used to specifically disrupt, hinder, and in some cases, discredit a person when expressing their feelings, opinions and/or personal experiences. While it can occur anywhere social interactions take place — at work, within educational institutions or even at home, for example, it’s particularly prevalent when dealing with issues around politics, social change/social progress, anti-racism or injustice.

Focusing on how a message is being delivered, and criticizing its emotionally charged nature is a method used by some to deliberately hijack discussions; typically with the aim of controlling or shifting attention in a way that shuts down important conversations.

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Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person over the oppression of the disadvantaged person. Most damagingly, it places prerequisites on being heard and helped. | So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo

Even if tone policing is perpetuated by well-meaning individuals who are unaware they’re doing it; the impacts and outcomes are the same as when it’s used to target and intentionally disrupt/invalidate significant social discussions and action. It’s insidiously oppressive; demanding civility can easily be played off as considerate and polite; when in reality it uses a veneer of respectability to direct and control the conditions in which discourse occurs. Tone policing ultimately asks someone to share trauma, injustice or mistreatment in a more palatable way — making it easier to ignore or completely silence. 

Useful Article | Playing the Game of Respectability Politics, But At What Cost? — Very Well Mind

As individuals, we benefit from a varied and converging range of different types of social privileges; regulating how we want others to respond to inequality, inequity or any other harmful lived experience is one of them. Dismissing anyone in this way is extremely offensive — which can sometimes be the point because causing outrage diverts energy and focus away from the issue at hand. No matter how or why tone policing is used, it establishes a barrier between securing understanding and building resolutions for the future.

Confronting the fact that we may gain certain privileges from how society is structured while others are systematically disadvantaged is uncomfortable — it’s meant to be. It’s on us to work through that uneasiness and not tone police the words of those who take the time to raise awareness.

When you insist that BiPOC talk about their painful experiences with racism without expressing any pain, rage or grief, you are asking them to dehumanize themselves. | Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor – Layla F. Saad

Two women sit at a table; one is listening carefully as the other talks. Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova via Pexels.
photo via Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels

Examples of how tone policing can manifest:

  • insisting a message would be better received if spoken about calmly
  • labeling someone as being irrational, delusional, emotional or radical
  • asking someone to not use profanity
  • stating an issue is being ignored/overlooked or poorly received because of how loud, angry or upset someone is
  • justifying angry backlash towards someone because of how they shared personal experience, knowledge or information

Thankfully, challenging this kind of response whenever we see it is relatively uncomplicated; it does, however require a willingness to acknowledge its presence and purpose — if we can manage this then we’ve already undertaken a significant step towards ensuring conversations, discussions and progress remain unstifled.

Useful Article: Stop Policing Black Women’s Tone — The Root

Here’s how you can take action against tone policing:

  • recognize it’s a microaggression that reinforces a negative idea that an issue/lived experience holds less value when expressed with emotion
  • accept someone’s emotional response is valid and does not require your approval
  • practice active listening and actionable empathy; examine carefully whether you’re looking to respond to the root of a problem or how someone emotionally articulates themselves about it
  • pause before responding; refocus on the core matter in question if you find yourself or others reacting to how a message is being delivered — it’s okay to feel uncomfortable, frustrated or irritated during discussions; check in with yourself to figure out why this is before replying
  • be cognizant of when someone else questions delivery over content; be prepared to help establish boundaries that call people in when they detract from the key topic of concern

Tone policing can be a complex subject to understand, it’s perfectly reasonable, for example, to expect communication to be healthy, constructive and respectful of boundaries — none of us want to be involved in something that crosses over into harassment or argument, etc. Insisting on being spoken to in a way that makes us feel safe, heard and accepted during discussions isn’t necessarily tone policing; it does, however, become contentious if these conditions place our comfort above everything else and/or distract attention away from the purpose of the ongoing discourse (intentional or otherwise) — it’s important we learn the difference.

Have you heard about tone policing before? Have you caught yourself focusing on how the person is speaking/makes you feel rather than what they’re saying?


Further Info:

What It Means to Center Ourselves in Conversation & How To Practice Decentering Instead — The Good Trade

22 thoughts on “Why It’s Important To Challenge Tone Policing”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this post. I wish it was more widely discussed. I’ve experienced this, especially on the topic of racism, and it’s crazy how much we end up dismissing our own feelings and validation based on how others react to our pain. We could all benefit from taking a pause and empathizing, because we all deserve to have healthy conversations. Great post Molly.

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  2. I haven’t heard of the term tone policing before, but I have been aware of situations when people were told they were being “too emotional” when talking about a topic. Thank you for including ways we can take action against tone policing.

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  3. I’ve never heard about the term tone policing, but I do recognise it. Being told you’re too emotional or to lower your voice when you are passionate about a topic is not a nice experience. It can really derail the actual matter at hand. The conversation moves from the subject matter to your delivery. Instead of focusing on the topic and recognising that the tone points to the seriousness or import of the topic, we react to the delivery. Emotions are great indications of what going on internally and shouldn’t be regulated. Of course, no one wants to be verbally abused or feel threatened, but neither should we quiet the distress delivered through speech or text. Tone policing is a balancing act and requires more empathy from both parties.

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    1. 100% — it’s a tactic used to silence debate and/or experience precisely because it does such an effective job at derailing what someone is saying/exploring. It’s good to be aware of as wherever possible we can refocus attention on this issues being discussed. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

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  4. I had actually never heard of tone policing before! Thank you for educating me about this. I can’t recall whether I’ve been guilty of this before, but from now on I’ll be paying more attention to make sure I focus on the content of what’s being said rather than how it’s delivered. It makes so much sense that people would naturally have an emotional response when talking about certain topics, and that shouldn’t be repressed or discredited.

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    1. It’s a real eye-opener; and it’s so great to hear that you’re willing to be aware of it if/when you use it towards others — I also agree 100% that people have emotional responses to things that impact them and they have a right to fully express their responses. Thanks so much for reading!

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  5. I had no idea that Tone Policing had a name! I know exactly what it is, but never that it had a name and now it’s going to be so much easier expressing myself when talking about it.

    I absolutely hate the use of tone policing in important conversations. We had a lecturer in college who was quite bad with it when it came to talking with women & queer students. He turned to this alot when he felt like his point was not being heard or he couldn’t rebuttal.

    It absolutely grinds my gears when it’s used again BiPOC. That quote from Layla is so spot on.

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    1. Once I discovered it’s name (which does encapsulate it so perfectly) I was better able to deal with it when I saw it happening. It happens far more than people may realize — like in the situation you described with your lecturer. Thank you for sharing that!

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