Words Matter and Tone Counts


My uncle was a well-respected Principal of a College who had some serious differences on matters of Principle with the Correspondent of the College.  As a result he had been removed from his post illegally by the afore mentioned gentleman (to use a polite term, my family had more choice names for him).  We were at lunch as a family and like good tam-brams sitting on the floor and eating our sambar, vegetable and rice while my uncle was venting like billy yo. The incident was a new piece of perfidy perpetrated by this gentleman and my uncle was holding forth on the specific and special qualities of his favorite nemesis. To some diatribe of my uncle’s against the venerable party of the other part, I unthinkingly responded “I suppose you are right”. This was my fancy way of saying I agreed with him. But I was taken aback when he in response, expostulated “you Suppose!!!, who gave you the right to suppose?”. I didn’t think that the usage of Suppose required a license from some govt. office. Needless to say, the rest of the meal I held my tongue and consciously employed it more profitably in dealing with the food.

The hurt remained with me and in fact I reflected a lot on this explosion by my uncle over the years. Went from resentment to denial to finally accepting that he was not unjustified. I had chosen to add ‘Suppose’. I had not said ‘you are right’. This was perhaps a signal of my subliminal reservation that I did not fully agree with him as I had not heard the other party.  And I realized that there was a serious lesson that I could learn from this episode. He had read condescension, though I had not meant it; but given the state of stress he was in ‘suppose’ meant grudging concession, which he was not going to brook from a whipper-snapper of a boy.

I have realized over time that the choice of words and the tone in which it is said reveals a lot about a person’s heart and mind. Watch out for the qualifiers. In several group sessions where some agreement is being sought I have often seen people open out avenues of escape by qualifying their commitment quite unthinkingly.

“I am Ok with it” is not always a particularly enthusiastic approval. Instead of assuming that we have reached agreement it may actually be a signal to probe to find what is the real reservation. And usually I find some past baggage or some misconception or a genuine apprehension that can de-rail everything. Handling the objection in an inclusive open manner will bring energy and commitment; ignoring the undertone is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes deeper enquiry may actually get people to reflect more deeply and understand concerns and worries that they have been denying even to themselves.

Another one is “it is pretty good”. Ah! There is a subliminal message here. Note it is not an unqualified approval and therefore reflects some reservations. So what is lacking my friend, against what standards? Open it up and you may have a plethora of pieces that need to be dealt with before your plan can even take birth.

Of course, while being aware of the flavor of words it is important to make enough concessions to Miss Malaprop.

Tone too is a dead give away. Take, for instance, the well known story about the word Yeah. It can be used to convey agreement, enthusiasm, simply NO, disbelief, sarcasm (try it now. It’s a fun exercise. By some strange rule the younger they are, the more dexterity they display with it. It kind of peaks in the teens). And if you prefix it with “oh” it can lead to more flavors than the varieties of Dosa.

Being sensitive to how words are used by people and the tones in which they say it, helps me connect deeply to the inner recesses of their mind. It is in those dimly lit caverns that the heart molds our thoughts. Getting people to change requires sensitivity to follow the trail set up by diction to get to the real levers of personal growth. It is no coincidence that diction means both choice of words and enunciation! Enunciation is but one step removed from tone.

Language has always seen these two, words and tone as close cousins. And the fact is that they both count and matter.