don't use that tone of voice with me, internet friends

Reacting a little bit from a discussion I had on Crone Island[1] earlier this week, I brought a bunch of feelings to my therapist and had a really interesting discussion about tones in conversation with her. It's been a community discussion which is fraught and hard for everyone on intersectional grounds and the question of tone arguments and tone policing came up at one point, which I mentioned to her when I was describing the discussion. I was fairly surprised when she very firmly insisted "There is no such thing as tone in written text, because tone is a matter of intonation and body language."

I'm much younger than she is and was practically raised by the internet besides, so I took this with several grains of salt. I immediately brought up CAPS and italics and bold as tonal cues, plus emoji and emoticons--both of which are in heavy use in that community--and she agreed that those are emotional signifiers like the spoken/performed cues she listed as components of tone. I dropped the point pretty quickly at the time because dude, this is therapy, not Sci-has-intellectual-conversations-about-communication time, and I have a history with therapy and casually derailing therapy sessions rather than actually talk about my shit. I'm good at it, too.

Thing is, I think that tone's about lots of things. Markers we insert into the text to connotate emphasis, sure, like punctuation, capitalization, and font styles--those are components of internet tone. And so are things like emoji and gifs and emoticons before both of them, which visually import an emotional state to the viewer. In a synchronous medium like Slack--which is where Crone Island is hosted; if you're not familiar with it it's like an IRC chat but better organized--anyway, in a medium like that, the speed at which someone is typing or speaking is also often an emotional cue to their communication, too. But I don't think either of those are all the ways to impart tone in written text, in part because I was raised by books before I was raised by the Internet, and have you seen the difference in tone that you can convey with word choice in English?

For example, look at the difference in effect between these sentences:

Hey, I don't know if you've noticed, but you're standing on my foot. Could you get off it?

Please pick up your foot; you're standing on me.

Get the fuck off my foot. Now.

These are sentences which are conveying very similar requests--get off the speaker's foot--but the word choices inherent in them and the phrasing used say a lot about the speaker's emotional state, forcefulness, and willingness to soothe or hear any feelings that the foot-stepper has about being called out for being rude and stepping on the speaker's foot. One is much softer in tone than the others, and one is much harsher. And yet I haven't changed anything about punctuation--there are no intensifiers there and all of the punctuation is bog-standard basic English, and so is the sociolect that they're delivered in. (That is, I haven't dipped into an Internet-specific nonstandard subcultural inflection, like the no-caps example below. That particular font choice is one I associate with sarcasm.)

hey can i just ask you if you noticed that you were standing on my foot bc ruuude

And of course, all of this matters in conversation, especially in highly fraught conversations that require sensitivity in handling. The softer the request and its tone, the more likely it is to be completely ignored by the person being asked to take notice and step off... but also, the less likely it is that the speaker will feel enough shame to become defensive and emotionally flooded, which carries its own cost in emotional labor. (Assuming you give a shit about your conversational partner's feelings and/or face social consequences if you make someone anxious and panicky-defensive and then walk off, of course.)

Of course, that isnt just tone on the internet. It applies to pretty much every disagreement between humans where tone can come in. And of course, the more loaded the topic and the less trust exists between the two people in an interaction, the smaller the zone between extremes of "tone too soft: request not heard and processed as important" and "tone too harsh: emotionally flooded, shame overload proceeding directly to either avoidance and forgetting as quickly as possible or aggressive defensiveness" is.

Let's call it the Cool Zone, because when you hit it right, you get a cool sort of "oh yeah, sorry, lemme fix that" response and no one has to deal with ugly messy emotions. (Just for shorthand, we can maybe call the problem of "request too soft and nice; completely flies over head of person" the Dead Zone, because the request bounced right off the foot-stepper and died on impact; and we can maybe call the problem of "request too harsh; triggers defensive emotional shame spiral and request for emotional nurturing" the Hot Zone, because there's hot feelings spurting everywhere, oh god, gross.)

Protip: this is real relevant to questions of structural privilege, because the more privileged you are, the less experience you have with being criticized on this axis and the higher you perceive the social stakes of being criticized... and the smaller the zone of 'acceptable tone' will be for you on that topic. This is why white tears is such a huge thing and why feminist women have been quietly making fun of men's emotional fragility for literal centuries[2]. The frustration inherent to dealing with privileged fragility and constantly self monitoring tone is why we have the concept of the tone argument, because that is a whole lot of fucking work to expect out of a marginalized community every time someone lobs a microaggression at them. And, you know, sometimes you try and you try and you try and then you run out of energy, snap, and just use whatever level of irritation you're actively feeling and quit bothering to spend the emotional bandwidth to monitor cues and estimate the appropriate zone of harshness to use for each microaggresson tosser.

The Gottman Institute says that men are particularly susceptible to emotional flooding, but I heavily suspect that's because they aren't correcting for the many small criticisms that women get as a result of living in a kyriarchical world, and that it's less a matter of biology and more of a matter of socialization and expectations. (Especially since the bulk of the clientele they're discussing this with are men in relationships with women, talking about their relationships with women, and therefore they're all being heavily primed to think in terms of gender.) I'm pretty sure that they'd also find that, if they looked at dyads of white people and black people who were discussing how to manage small conflicts and disagreements all the time, or dyads of straight and queer people, or whatever that they would suddenly find that this is also a thing white people are more susceptible, and straight people, and so on.

I'm not, of course, a social psychologist--my academic wheelhouse is working on how animals make decisions about social shit in their own natural contexts, precisely because this sort of thing is too fraught for me to want to stake a career in--but I know enough to be pretty wary about biological essentialism about this sort of thing, especially given how testosterone etc. actually works.

Anyway. Ideally, the solution to this sort of thing is to figure out how to widen the Cool Zone of foot-steppers. But that... requires that you figure out how to make that request of privileged people with juuuuuuust the right amount of tone harshness to land in their (already narrow) Cool Zone, and that's the whole damn problem! So instead, the tone argument and the discourse around it have more or less gone "fuck it, aiming for the Cool Zone is a waste of time anyway, and your upset about it and your fragility is your own goddamn problem." And there are particular corners of the Internet where this has been exaggerated into "you can't criticize people for their tone or ask people to modulate it because that's oppressive," which amplifies the issue.

This is, unfortunately, a) not really a tenable way to encourage people to develop good communities, b) not really how humans work, at least not in healthy ways, and sets up a variety of dysfunctional coping mechanisms, c) increases fear about the whole discussion and narrows the Cool Zone for many of the same people you would like to widen it in, and most importantly to me d) is really good cover for abusers in marginalized communities to operate. Look at the whole Winterfox case, for example, where a woman of color used the language of tone arguments and marginalization to target primarily other women of color for harassment and abuse within the science-fiction and fantasy writing community and isolate them. It's a great example of these kinds of dynamics in action.

Well, balls. Okay, so how do you widen the Cool Zone that's expected out of people in a diverse community? It's not fucking okay to make marginalized people bend over backwards for every microaggression that gets tossed at them! Besides, if you just require people to use only nice, overtly polite tones and never hit the Hot Zone by mistake, you're just letting people who are accidentally or intentionally hurting other people spend all their time in the Dead Zone--not a recipe for change or a healthy community, either.

Gottman's whole schtick is to basically encourage flooded people to take a break, pause, and come back to the conversation later, and ask the person raising the complaint to extend markers of empathy and try to pull them back from defensive flood state. This works really well, but it only works well if the flooded person really does mean to do better and is willing to put in the work to fix the problem and tackle whatever bits of they can with the emotional resources available to them. This is some of the hardest shit we do as people, and paradoxically, the more you care, the more vulnerable you can be to flooding with shame and failure spirals when you fuck up. (Which you will. Because we all will; we're human.)

I would love to be able to extend those techniques outside of romantic relationships and say there's a simple panacea to these interactions within communities more broadly. It'd be awesome. Buuuuut... that would also basically be solving racism, sexism, and a variety of other things in one go. The best that I have, as a flawed human who is putting these ideas together, is a mix of several things:

  • 1): Talk about this stuff. If your members know that flooding is a thing that can happen to them, and they know that there's a physiological component to emotions that can be managed with things like breathing exercises, then they know to watch for signs of it in themselves before they sink into a defensive spiral. For once, knowing really is half the battle.

  • 2): Foster affection between individuals. Find ways to build positive interactions between community members, and make them give a shit about each other's feelings. That helps a) avoid flooding and b) makes it more likely that if a marginalized person brings a criticism and another person does become flooded, the marginalized person will have some actual motivation to stick around and talk about things.

  • 3): Remind people that taking a break and coming back to a hard discussion later is okay. If someone is feeling criticized and flooded--even if no one is actually intending to criticize them, you can still feel that and wind up with flooding behavior--then taking some space to get their head in order is critical. Making it a community norm that you can take a break and think and then come back, before you post something in the middle of a big emotional reaction, is really crucial.

  • 3a): Remind people to take a break if they seem flooded, period. Overwhelmed people are not always the best at regulating their own emotions; mods and mediators are really handy for externally doing this and telling people to step out and pause if they're backpedaling and digging deeper because emotions.

  • 4:) Remove bad actors. Remember when I said that trust is a big factor here? When someone you trust says "hey, I think you're messing that up," it's way less scary than a stranger doing it--especially for a really emotionally salient, heavy thing. My Cool Zone for criticism from friends and people I know like me is way bigger than it is for strangers, and bigger yet than it is for people I mistrust and dislike. On the gripping hand, I also am more likely to invest some energy in trying to aim for a Cool Zone response if I think a person is likely to hear me and respond, even if they're a stranger. If you're full of bad actors who don't care about the concerns brought by other community members, your marginalized members will have very little incentive to do this.

More to come later, probably.

In other news, last night discovered that I fucked up the DVR settings on my everfocus, and had to stay late to try and make sure that this whole "oh btw we stopped recording and didn't send any alarms" mess never ever happens again in my little audio room palace. My god, PhD sucks sometimes, and this is one of 'em. Especially when I really, really wanted to please my PI this week. Ffffff. When I'm done writing this, I'm going to be hitting up the colonies and setting up mice for another round of experiments--but writing this up was way more fun. I'm gonna stop here, because I do need to do other things, but I may come back and edit and improve this thing later.

[1]This is a Slack community I'm part of, which is invite-only but also generally pretty awesome. It founded spontaneously about a year ago in response to the emotional labor thread on Metafilter and has grown into an active, pretty awesome, caring little community. We have a fairly quiet outpost on Imzy too, if you want to ask questions.

[2] If you want to read some hilarious poetry making fun of pro-patriarchy men and sexism more generally, I highly recommend reading Alice Duer Miller's Are Women People It was published in 1915, but many of the poems in it were written and publshied by Miller in the newspapers from 1900 on. Among other things, "Why We Oppose Votes for Men," "A Sex Difference," and "Many Men to Any Women" are all both hilarious and directly relevant to this post. And in researching to get you that information, I found she published another book of snarky poems called _Women Are People!_ and now I'm delighted all over again.