Over the past weeks, we have begun to take part in conversations about race which are long overdue. Many of us are having uncomfortable, although necessary, conversations. I can only hope that these conversations will catapult us all into enacting the changes so desperately needed to dismantle systemic racism and the dehumanization and pain that it brings. Like always, it begins with education, and many of us are passing along what we have learned to those who are now seeking a more in-depth understanding and a greater sensitivity. But I want to take a moment and remind us all of the importance of tone.
I am not saying that we should never express anger. We all have a right to our feelings, including anger, and when we feel angry we have a right to voice it. When we see injustice and stupidity we need to point it out clearly and distinctly. Change comes when we speak up and speak out. Change lies in the power of words and action. But I believe we must remember that the purpose of speaking up is to communicate. It is powerful communication which creates change, and communication is a two-way street. The speaker must be clear and forceful, but the audience must be able to hear what is being said. Harsh insults do nothing but close down communication. If a person feels under threat, they can not hear; they can not learn. If the goal is to create greater understanding and empathy in someone else, then the speaker needs to speak with understanding and empathy. This can be done even when the speaker is angry. This can be done even when the speaker is in pain. This can’t be done if the speaker is speaking more out of a wish to show off their knowledge than to share it. How you say something is as important as what you say. It determines whether your audience can hear and understand you or whether you are just talking to yourself. Any good teacher knows that the very first step to imparting new knowledge is to make sure that the one listening can hear what is being said. No one can hear when they are being humiliated. Humiliation comes when a speaker’s tone is superior, belittling, insulting, patronizing. If a person feels belittled, insulted, patronized then they can’t hear what is being said to them, they can’t take it in, and so they can’t learn. Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, amidst all the wonderful conversations I have had personally or read on social media, there has also been a great deal of tone-deafness. People often don’t stop to listen to themselves before they speak, or post, or press send.
Information is important, but the way that information is conveyed also matters. Tone makes a difference to whether a connection is made or a bridge is burnt. People who ignore the way they impart their necessary information also lose the opportunity to create the change they seek. If you are tone deaf, you can’t be a part of the music.