Have you ever been in a conversation where someone tells you to change your tone instead of addressing the content of your message? This is known as tone policing, a tactic that dismisses or discredits an argument based on how it’s being presented rather than the argument itself.
Tone policing is a form of ad hominem, a logical fallacy that attacks the person making the argument rather than addressing the idea itself. It’s a way of deflecting the discussion away from the issue and making the person feel uncomfortable or ashamed for expressing their viewpoint.
Tone policing is often used when a power dynamic is at play. For example, suppose a person in a position of authority wants to silence a subordinate. In that case, they may use tone policing to make him feel his opinion is invalid or inappropriate.
However, it is also used in other social situations. Here are some scenarios where tone policing is commonly used.
Tone Policing Examples
1. Sexism In The Workplace
Scenario: A woman is sharing her experiences with sexism in the workplace but is told she is being “too emotional” or “hysterical.”
In this situation, a woman who is mistreated at work because of her gender tries to share her experiences with others. Still, they dismiss her by saying that she is being too emotional or hysterical and don’t take her seriously. Instead, they belittle her emotions and make it seem like she is overreacting. This can be frustrating and hurtful for the woman because it makes her feel like no one cares about what she has to say.
Scenario: A person of color is sharing their experiences with racism but is told they are being “too angry” or “hostile.”
In this situation, a person of color is speaking out about their experiences with racism. However, instead of being listened to and understood, they are told that they are being “too angry” or “hostile.”
When their feelings are dismissed, the problem isn’t authentic or important. This can make the person feel even more frustrated and unheard.
3. LGBTQ+ Rights
Scenario: An LGBTQ+ person is discussing their rights but is told they are being “too aggressive” or “in your face.”
When an LGBTQ+ person speaks out about their rights or experiences discrimination, some people may feel that they are acting out as uncomfortable or defensive. Instead of listening to what the person has to say and trying to understand their perspective, these individuals may resort to name-calling or accusing the other person of being too pushy.
4. Sexual Assault Victim
Scenario: A survivor of sexual assault is speaking up but is told they are being “too sensitive” or “overreacting.”
When someone has experienced sexual assault and speaks up about it, they may be told that they are being “too sensitive” or “overreacting.” Due to the experienced trauma, a victim might get too emotional when opening up about their pain. At times, the emotions are accompanied by a harsh tone directed at the gender of the person who assaulted them. By dismissing someone’s experience as being “too sensitive,” it can make the survivor feel like their feelings and experiences are not valid or important. Tone policing leaves them feeling we are invalidating their emotions and minimizing the impact of what happened to them.
Scenario: An activist protests peacefully but is told they are being “too disruptive.”
This situation talks about an activist who is protesting peacefully. However, sometimes, people may not agree with the message of the protest or feel uncomfortable with its presence and may tell the activists that they are being “too disruptive.” In most cases, the dismissal causes the activists to protest more aggressively.
6. Demanding For One’s Needs
Scenario: A person advocates for their needs but is told they are being “too demanding” or “difficult.”
Have you ever asked for something you needed, only to be told you were being “too demanding” or “difficult”? This happens when a person advocates for their needs but is met with resistance from others. If one speaks up and asks for what they need, it can be challenging if the other person doesn’t understand their perspective or isn’t willing to listen. When someone tells you that you are being too demanding or difficult, it can make you feel your needs aren’t necessary or valid.
7. When Someone Is Grieving
Scenario: A person expresses their pain or grief but is told to “calm down” or “be more composed.”
This scenario is about someone expressing their pain or grief, which means they are telling someone else how they feel because something has hurt them emotionally. They might yell, cry, or sound angry while expressing their feelings. However, instead of being listened to and comforted, the person is told to “calm down” or “be more composed.”
This response can make the person feel like their emotions are not valid or important, which can be frustrating. It may also make it harder for them to talk about their feelings in the future because they fear being dismissed again.
8. Use of Sarcasm
Scenario: A person uses sarcasm or humor to make a point but is told they are being “too sarcastic” or “not taking things seriously enough.”
Sometimes, people use sarcasm or humor to make a point, but others might not understand it. For example, if someone asks you how your day was and you had a terrible day, you might say, “Oh, just fantastic!” in a sarcastic tone to show that your day was actually bad.
However, sometimes people don’t appreciate sarcasm or humor and may attack the person by saying they aren’t taking things seriously enough. Others will simply move on and dismiss a humorous statement without paying attention to the person’s actual feelings. This can cause a misunderstanding between the parties involved.
9. Raised Voice
Scenario: A person is yelling or raising their voice to make their point but is told they are being “too loud” or “disrespectful.”
In this situation, the person speaking is using their voice in an elevated manner, either by yelling or raising their voice. While this may be done with good intentions of clarifying a point or emphasizing its importance, it can also come across as aggressive or rude. The listener might feel uncomfortable and perceive the speaker’s behavior as disrespectful because they do not follow social communication norms.
10. When A Person Is Direct
Scenario: A person is being direct or blunt in their communication but is told they are being “too harsh” or “abrasive.”
Imagine you tell your friend that their outfit looks terrible on them. You might say something like, “That dress doesn’t flatter your body type.” While you’re just being honest, your friend might think you were too harsh and should have said something like, “I’m not sure if that dress is really your style.”
In this situation, a person is speaking their mind in a straightforward and honest way. However, someone else may feel that the speaker’s words are too harsh or abrasive, suggesting that the speaker could have been more gentle or polite in expressing themselves.
To Wrap Up
Ultimately, tone policing is a way of avoiding difficult conversations. It’s a way of maintaining the status quo rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue about important issues. It helps to recognize tone policing when it’s happening and call it out for what it is. When someone is tone-policing, the critical thing is to redirect the conversation back to the content of the argument and not let the person using the tactic dictate the terms of the discussion.