Elizabeth Arnott, SPHR
Frequently Misunderstood: Tone of Voice and the Risk of Making Assumptions
Updated: Feb 16
"Jane was rude to me. I don't want to work with her anymore. I am sick of her attitude."
"Can you explain what you mean when you say she was rude to you?"
"It was just her tone. I asked her if she was done with her project and she just said 'No, it's not done yet.' But it was the way she said it. Like she didn't care."
Often times we assume a person's attitude, intent or feelings based on their tone of voice and body language. It's all part of communication. But not every person's tone of voice and body language is based in their attitude, intent or feelings. It may simply be their default when they are focused, a reaction to their surroundings, or the result of a challenging day.
In a work environment that is rich in neurodiversity, you will often have people whose words are separate from their tone of voice or body language. Assuming that they ARE connected can mean that you miss the real issues that need to be resolved.
For example: Let's say that when you ask Jane why she was rude to Tom, Jane explains that she was working on her project that she'd been focused on intensely since 8 am. At noon, Tom came up behind her, tapped her on the shoulder, startling her, and said "Hey are you done with your project yet?" Jane jerked her head up, being startled by someone coming up behind her when she didn't see them, and being interrupted suddenly after being intensely focused, answered the question in a tense, sharp tone: "No, it's not done yet." and then turned around and started working on the project again.
As the manager, if you focus on Jane's tone of voice being rude, the impetus will be on Jane to alter her reaction when she's startled, something that most of us would have a very hard time doing. Expecting Jane to change her reaction to unexpected interactions is asking her to accommodate her co-worker's whim, instead of requiring mutual respect for both people. And asking her to accommodate this whim, will require her to constantly be vigilant, so that she is NOT surprised or startled by anything, so that her communication isn't interpreted as rude. That is exhausting and will not only distract from her usually excellent focus, it will set her up for constant stress and likely failure.
If instead, you focus on what caused her reaction, Tom coming up behind Jane without announcing himself and unexpectedly tapping her on the shoulder, you can help both employees understand each other and avoid similar situations going forward. Ask Jane what her preference is for communication. Explain to Tom why coming up behind someone quietly and tapping them on the shoulders is unnerving to many people. Come to an agreement with both employees about communication going forward. Maybe Tom can send his question via IM instead of in person. Maybe Jane can agree to check her IMs every ten minutes so that he can get a prompt response.
The bottom line is: Tone of voice and body language are not inextricably connected to attitude, intent or feelings for all people. Don't assume that it is. If an employee is being frequently misunderstood, talk to them. Ask them about specifics and try to understand what their intent is. Then help other employees understand. Make communication agreements with employees that are respectful to each person, and not based arbitrary, vague norms.
By avoiding assumptions and addressing the real issues, you set employees up for collaboration, inclusivity and understanding.