What is Tone Policing?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Apr 26, 2018

What is Tone Policing?

It can be hard to keep your cool when opening up about something personal, but is there a ‘right’ way to talk about our experiences with mental health?

According to Time to Change, 60% of people wait more than a year before telling friends and family about their mental health problems. Opening up is hard. We don’t always know for certain how someone is going to react, and talking about something as personal as mental health can quickly get emotional.

But does the way we talk about our experiences matter? If we act casually about it, will we be taken seriously? If we get upset, will we come across as too emotional? If we become angry, will the conversation shut down?

couple sitting on bridge talking

Tone policing is when people are told there’s a “right” way to talk about experiences. It refers to when someone focuses on the way that you talk about something, rather than what you’re saying. You could be making the argument that there needs to be better mental health support in schools, but as you’re making this point, you begin to get angry. Perhaps someone you know, or you yourself, had previously been let down by a service, or maybe you’ve become frustrated with slow progress. Whatever the reason may be, your argument is dismissed because you’re “too emotional”, or your experience is seen as blurring the reality.

While frustrating, research has found that there is an ideal way to talk to people in order to get them on your side. In a 2011 study published by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, a team from the University of Michigan looked at a group of telemarketers to find the ideal way of communicating. Reviewing recordings of 1,380 introductory telephone calls, researchers found that the ideal speech pace is 3.5 words per second, in an even-keeled voice and, while for women pitch made no difference, a deeper voice for men was better.

But should the inability to speak at 3.5 words per second in an even keel diminish the chance of being taken seriously? To get an idea of the way that tone policing can affect people, I spoke to mental health activist Iris Mariani. “I remember when I tried to explain to my mother that I was having some intrusive thoughts,” she tells me. “While I was telling her, I was unable to calm myself down, I got really emotional and I cried.”

The more upset Iris got, the less she felt her mum was taking her seriously. “There’s nothing worse than being misunderstood while mentally suffering. Especially when we try to explain our issues to our friends and relatives,” says Iris. “Our facial expressions, voice volume, and gestures, are all elements that inevitably influence other people’s judgement of our situation. Which, sadly, can turn into a negative one.”

Another activist, the anonymous blogger @sectioned_, sees tone policing as a “derailing technique”, that halts debates in mental health conversations: “When I speak up to challenge mental health prejudice and discrimination, there’ll be someone who’ll respond with tone policing. People will say, ‘rethink your tone’, rather than ‘thank you’ or, ‘sorry’.”

people sitting together on hill

Despite being shortlisted for Mind awards in 2014 and 2015, @sectioned_ has received criticism for the impassioned way the blog talks about mental health. “Focusing on ‘tone’ rather than addressing the issue being raised reflects the position of power the person believes themself to be in,” they say.

There’s certainly a place for anger in the mental health conversation. With services overstretched and help not always easy to come by, it’s clear to see how frustration builds up. And while negativity can be hard to deal with, it’s important to understand that people experience things in different ways, and there is no single “right” way to talk about the things that happen to us.

The way that we experience mental health varies dramatically from person to person. Some things are painful and upsetting, other times we might become frustrated and angry – either way, we should try our best to accept people’s experiences as they are shared with us. Unfortunately, not everyone we talk to will respond positively, so what should we do if we’re being tone policed?

“Don’t take it too personally,” says Iris. “Reach out to someone who will give you the objective support you deserve, even if it’s a medical professional.”

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