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Don’t Take That Tone . . .

From Maria Simpson’s Two Minute Training

An endgame is the strategy you plan for how you will play your last hand or your remaining chess pieces or the end of the race to ensure the outcome you want. Sometimes the endgame is designed to win quite openly, and sometimes it is designed to manipulate circumstances by distorting meaning. Sometimes those strategies work and sometimes they don’t, but it’s the plan we put into place to get a desired result, and then we hope it works.
A few weeks ago I saw Samuel Beckett’s play, Endgame, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Beckett requires the audience to find meaning where there may not be an obvious meaning, as in Waiting for Godot, which has two characters waiting for a third without knowing exactly why. But they wait anyway.

In Endgame, four characters are facing what seems to be the end of the world, if not for everyone than definitely for them. What struck me was the actors’ voices. Beckett is not an easy writer to understand, and a play that includes stage directions for two of its four characters to live in metal trash cans and occasionally lift their heads out of the trash cans to deliver their lines can be a bit off-putting. But I cannot get it out of my head. 
Meaning comes from intonation when we speak far more than it comes from the language we use, as those actors demonstrated. How we say something — the speed, loudness, pitch, emphasis on specific words – creates meaning, and in the case of this play, the actors’ voices conveyed such clear meaning that this odd play was perfectly understandable. The relationships, the feelings, and the hopes of the characters in the face of death were quite clear.
In these cases the intent of delivery determines meaning. “This is what I mean because this is what I am emphasizing.”
But what about the less intentional intonation, the sentence that sounds pretty neutral, but that might or might not mean something disheartening, like the offhand comment? The language is clear and the tone neutral, but was the intent an insult or a kind suggestion? How do you tell if you have been insulted or helped when the tone is neutral?
Henry Alford discusses the offhand comment or implied criticism that sticks in your brain and feels like an insult, but may not have been intended as an insult.* Alford recounts the time a friend set up a casual meeting with an industry leader and said, “be a little more effusive than you normally are.” After I got a haircut a friend said to me, “It will take some getting used to.”
These comments can stick in the brain long after the event because it’s “something people already believe about themselves. . . . [t]hey secretly harbor this fear, so when you articulate it, it validates the fear.”* Alford may have thought, “Am I really so low-key? Am I boring?” I wondered if the haircut was so bad I looked awful and people would avoid me to avoid mentioning it. We often just don’t know how to interpret these comments, in part because they are delivered in such neutral tones.
In the case of Endgame, the intonation gave deliberate meaning to the dialogue in the play, and in the case of the off-hand insult, the lack of anger or spite, the neutral tone, can be interpreted as intending to make a comment without hurt or insult. Not sure it works all the time, though, and maybe this is a case of manipulation through tone. Avoid the nasty tone and avoid the feedback to an obvious insult.
These concepts about intention and intonation may not apply to all communications, but to enough of them that we should be aware of the implications and try to manage meaning by being careful to match intonation with intent. Maybe we developed emogis, to replace intonation in written messages, but another way to clarify meaning is simply to have more face-to-face conversations so we can see the impact of our words and our tone and repair the possible damage immediately.
Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.
Extra: Try this very short experiment to understand intonation. Say the sentence “Mary had a little lamb” putting the emphasis on a different word each time and see how clearly the meaning changes without changing a single word. (You may have to explain where that sentence comes from.) Five words, five meanings, all conveyed by tone of voice.
*“The Lingering Offhand Comment,” Henry Alford, NY Times, 5/22/2016, ST 2


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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