It’s harder to hear tone of voice over the telephone. Phone lines convey what the phone company thinks is the minimum information needed to understand speech. It doesn’t convey music well, apparently. It’s not very good for people speaking a language they’re not very fluent in. I have trouble recognizing whose voice it is or even sometimes whether it’s a man or a woman; this can be embarassing. It’s not lying to say “I can’t hear tone of voice very well over this phone connection.”
That makes a lot of sense.

When you don’t understand tones of voice on the phone

Love your blog! I’m an Aspie/NLDer and 25. One of my biggest problems is understanding tone of voice. Like I can’t talk on the phone. Everything gets lost on me. As a result, I never know if people are joking, being serious, are mad at me, etc. It’s very frustrating for the other person and even more so for me. Do you have any advice? Do you know of any good websites that help people with this?
I have a couple of suggestions:
Watch more TV:
  • TV shows can be a good way to learn about tones of voice
  • Partly because they have predictable tropes, so it’s easier to have a sense of what’s probably going on than in real conversations
  • It’s also possible to watch the same episode over and over in order to learn new things from it.
  • Once you already know what happens, it can be easier to pay attention to other things like tones of voice and other conversational cues
  • Watching TV can also give you useful scripts and phrases
  • Tropes happen in real conversations too; understanding the tropes can make conversations easier to follow

Some specific thoughts about which shows might be helpful:

  • Shows made for teenagers in the 90s tend to have a lot of telephone conversations. Often, both people are visible, so you can also watch facial expressions.
  • If you have trouble telling TV characters apart, try watching cartoons made for adults. (kids cartoons often don’t have enough dialogue to be helpful).
  • Futurama, The Simpsons, and King of the Hill are particularly good for this because large parts of the shows are about conversation
  • Community is also a good show to watch. It’s easier to tell the characters apart because they actually all look different. A lot of shows have identical looking white people with the same haircut, clothing, makeup, voice and mannerisms.
  • Community is easier to follow because the characters look different in *all* of those ways. The main characters all have different skin, faces, hair, clothing, voices, and mannerisms.
  • Community also has a realistic autistic character who successfully interacts with non-autistic characters. Watching him interact might help you figure out stuff about interacting

Use alternative means of communication:

  • Not everything has to be done over the phone
  • Sometimes it’s easier to use email or text conversations, or to meet people in person
  • It’s ok if that’s what you need.
  • I hardly ever use the phone socially except to arrange other kinds of interaction, except when I’m talking to a couple of people I know really well
  • Sometimes you can avoid incomprehensible phone conversations by claiming that your phone’s reception is bad. People usually believe that. It’s not even really a lie – it’s just that the reception problem is taking place between your ears rather than between the phones
  • You can also let your phone go to voicemail and text back instead of calling back.
  • Or say things like “I’d really like to talk to you, but this isn’t a good time. Can we get together sometime next week? How about Tuesday?”
  • If you understand body language at all, you might find that Skype is more usable for you than the phone

I don’t know of any effective resources effectively aimed at helping people to understand tones of voice. I suspect that they don’t exist, given what I know of how these things tend to be presented to autistic people. Social skills classes are usually oriented towards making people seem acceptable by following rules. They should be oriented towards helping people to understand things well enough to interact on their own terms, but they generally aren’t. Also, autism tests involving tones of voice are exceptionally ridiculous.

I could be wrong though. Do any of y’all know of any useful resources that teach tones of voice explicitly?

A guest post about phone messages

NOTE: I didn’t write this. It’s a submission. I haven’t tried doing it this way, but it seems to me that it would work:

To effectively leave a phone message:

  1. Write a list of what you need to convey – if you get nervous on the phone this is a good tip in general to call, because you might end up forgetting what you need to say as soon as that person picks up – happens to everybody!
  2. The most important things to include are your identity (name), reason for calling (to make an appointment? because they called you first but you missed it? to inquire or speak to somebody in particular in the building?), and your contact details (your cell/mobile or telephone number, email address).
  3. For example, your list could say: my name is John Smith, inquiring about doctor’s appointment, call back on xxx-xxxxx, evenings.
  4. Listen very carefully to any instructions you’re given on the answerphone. If you didn’t catch it the first time there is no harm in hanging up before the beep, calling, and listening again. Keep a pen to hand to make notes in the meantime.
  5. State your answer in the clearest way possible; you may be nervous, so aim to speak slowly and clearly. You won’t sound silly: the other person who will receive the message will be grateful that they can hear you clearly. Repeating certain details helps a lot too as hearing a number twice will allow the other person time to copy it down accurately.
  6. For example: “Hello there, I would like to make/ask about booking an appointment. My name is John Smith. Please call me back on my cellphone, my number is (speaking slowly) xxx-xxxxx. That’s xxx-xxxxx. I’ll be able to answer your call between 4 and 7pm any day of the week. Otherwise my e-mail address is john[at]email[dot]com. Thank you, goodbye.” Don’t hang up without an end greeting.
  7. You can alter this formula for informal things too, such as calling friends or family. If they already know your number just let them know that you’ll respond to a text more quickly, or when you’ll be available to receive a call.