Have you ever been in a heated conversation when someone tells you to “calm down”? This statement often has the opposite effect, making you more angry than you were before. In some situations, telling someone to calm down may be an example of tone policing — a strategy that is often used to derail conversations about hard topics.
At its heart, tone policing is a tactic that is used to dismiss an idea being communicated because the person expressing it appears to be angry, sad, frustrated, or in an emotionally charged state. For example, Mary gets mad at her partner, John, because he did not let their dog out, and the dog had an accident in the house. When Mary asks John why he didn’t let the dog out, she raises her voice. Instead of answering her question, John says, “Why are you so angry, Mary? You should calm down.” In this way, John avoids talking about the real issue — his failure to take care of their dog — and shifts the conversation to Mary’s anger.
Tone policing can be used against anyone. It is frequently used against marginalized people, in part due to unconscious bias. Consider this example: Chris believes that Fran doesn’t have a right to tell Chris what to do because of Fran’s race or gender. For this reason, Chris may try to shift the conversation any time Fran is telling Chris what to do, such as by saying “You seem really angry” instead of talking about the specific issue.
According to writer Tess Martin, tone policing is a tactic of oppression that works to shut down discussions about difficult topics, such as racism. It is often used to silence Black women, and may include stereotypes of Black women as being angry or aggressive. These stereotypes are based in racism, and were used — along with other notions — to justify slavery.
Consider a situation where a Black woman and a white woman are discussing an incident of racism at work. The Black woman gets emotional as she explains to her white colleague just how wrong the situation was. Her coworker doesn’t think what happened was a big deal, and responds, “You don’t need to get so angry about it.” She goes on to tell her colleague, “If you approached this nicely, then more people would be on your side.” The Black woman gets frustrated and walks away. In this instance, tone policing was a successful diversionary tactic, as the conversation ended without ever getting to the heart of the racist incident.
Tone policing often relies on an argument that a person must be able to address issues in a calm, rational, detached way. Of course, if you are not personally affected by a particular topic, it is much easier to be levelheaded about it. Demanding that others who are personally affected be just as calm as you are is a way to shut down conversation.
Activist Rachel Cargle recently highlighted tone policing in a private message that she received about one of her posts on Instagram. A woman named Linda wrote, “It is hard to impact those who might gain from your many insights when there is a steady, underlying hostility. Perhaps that is part of the message? An angry backlash is anticipated, but I felt it was worth mentioning. If the goal is to reach the widest audience possible, tone matters.” Cargle noted that:
Linda relied on a stereotype of an angry Black woman;
Linda preemptively excused any “angry backlash” that Cargle might receive because of her hostility;
Linda assumes that Cargle’s goal is to reach a “wide audience;” and
Linda directly tone polices her, stating that white people won’t be interested in anti-racism work unless it is conveyed in a nice manner.
Although this message appeared to be offered as constructive criticism, it actually was an attempt to derail the conversation by focusing on Cargle’s tone. It is a classic example of tone policing.
Being aware of tone policing is the first step in ending this tactic of oppression. You can then speak out against it when you see it — and be conscious to not use it in your own life.
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