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Dealing with Tone Policing

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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Understanding Tone Policing

In my time in nonprofit leadership, I've experienced bias - both implicit and explicit - along with microaggressions and blatant racism that impacted my interactions with colleagues and supervisors. Working with various stakeholders, attending professional development sessions, and collaborating with for-profit and nonprofit organizations, navigating this work as an Afro-Indigenous queer woman from the Bronx has presented challenges, with tone policing being a significant issue.

According to dictionary.com, tone policing is defined as a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or otherwise emotionally charged manner. I wish I could say that I am the only Black woman to experience this discomfort but sadly the "angry Black woman" stereotype has been affixed to many Black women and is no unique thing.

The "angry Black woman" stereotype or "Sapphire Caricature" dates back to the 1800s when Black women were portrayed in the media as sassy, sharp-tongued, neck twirling, finger pointing women who berated Black men and children, complained religiously, and were considered mean and abusive. As time went on, the media and popular culture continued to feed this stereotype and because life often imitates art (if you can even call it that), many people of White America and other ethnic groups began to look at Black women as a monolith who were aggressive and volatile. This depiction affected how Black women were and are still being regarded in today's workforce.

The Experience of Tone Policing

Several years ago, I sent an email to a former supervisor asking for clarification regarding a new policy we were implementing with staff at the organization. It was clear he did not understand my question or where it was coming from, as he responded with a series of questions for me to explain what I needed. Fortunately, I was able to get my queries cleared up by a colleague and no longer had any need for my supervisor's response therefore I responded to his email, "Don't worry about it. Have a great evening."

The following week, I was invited to the headquarters office and was given a disciplinary action notice by the new chief operation officer, who I didn't formally meet until that uncomfortable encounter. He had drafted a write up against me for two separate instances. I owned up to one and signed off on it, because I had clearly violated a policy and was able to earnestly take accountability for it. However, to my surprise, he also attempted to write me up for the "tone" I had used in that two-sentence response email.

I was insulted and offended. I racked my brain endlessly to try to understand where in that two-sentence email indicates an inappropriate or offensive tone. I thought a couple of things:

"It was two sentences and I had no bad intentions when sending it."

"I don't even know this man and have never spoken to him until now so how can he assume my tone was inappropriate."

"I have been at this organization for years and it is not the first time people have misconstrued my words or actions."

"I ended the message with 'Have a great evening' so what is he talking about?"

And the loudest thought of all, "This wouldn't even be happening if I were white."

Tips for Dealing with Tone Policing

I have been tone policed more times than I can count and every single time it has left me feeling ignored, undervalued, and not seen. Being born and raised in the Bronx, I have been taught from young to code switch and not show up as my full authentic self because it would be "too much" for folks to handle. However, when I did the code switch – lightened the bass in my voice, controlled my facial expressions, and heavily leaned on politeness and agreeability – my tone was still misconstrued and people would automatically confuse my assertiveness for aggression and anger.

With guidance from other BIPOC women leaders, participation in leadership groups and forums, and building confidence in my leadership overall, I have been able to build some tools and practice tips to combat tone policing, deliver my message effectively, and remain firm in my stance and position. Some tips I can offer include but aren't limited to:

  1. Believe fervently that you are meant to be in any room you step in regardless of how you show up and avoid the effects of imposter syndrome.
  2. Speak with purpose. Say what you mean, mean what you say – but don't be mean even if you feel others are being mean spirited to you.
  3. Breathe deeply and be intentional with every word you say.
  4. If someone says the following, "Why do you sound upset?", "You should calm down", or "Don't be so emotional", secure yourself first and then respond by stating that you aren't upset (unless you are, remember: be authentic), reinforce that you are indeed calm and are speaking from a rational place, and express that all human emotions are valid including frustration. Don't let anyone minimize you because they disagree or do not like the way you are communicating your opinion/suggestion. Oftentimes this is coming from a subjective place and they are receiving you based on their implicit biases.
  5. Stay on course. White men leaders who express themselves boldly and brazenly are not held under the same magnifying glass as BIPOC women. They are given the space to show up, be themselves, and not be on the receiving end of baseless criticism. We must create that same space for ourselves and teach others how to engage with us by first remaining true to self, speaking up when folk get us wrong, and always remembering that we work and deserve to be there.

With these tips in mind, the next time someone tells you to "watch your tone" feel empowered to kindly remind them to "watch your bias."

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