Shutting up won’t get you heard

Tone is important. When you say things the right way, it can increase the number of people who are willing to listen to you. 

But that only goes so far. No matter how good you are at framing things, some things that need to be said will upset people who feel entitled to be comfortable. And, when you upset people who feel entitled to comfort, they will lash out at you. This is not your fault; it is theirs. Tone has its limits.

Also, getting tone right is really hard. No one starts out good at tone; it’s a very difficult skill that you can only learn with practice. And the only way to get practice is to spend a lot of time talking to people about controversial things. Which means that, in order to get good at tone, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time talking about these things while you’re still bad at tone. 

People who mean well and genuinely want you to be heard understand this, and will encourage you to keep speaking up and keep working on your skills at speaking up effectively. People who want you to shut up about the things you’re talking about will try to make you feel horrible about your tone and convince you that your tone means you have no right to say anything.

Sometimes, when people say that you should be more careful about tone so that you can be heard, what they really mean is “I don’t want to hear that, shut up and say something else I’m willing to listen to”.

Don’t believe those people, and don’t shut up. The most important thing is to keep talking. If you are bad at tone, some people will refuse to hear you. If you are good at tone, some people will still refuse to hear you. If you say nothing for fear of getting the tone wrong, no one will hear you.

Shutting up won’t get you heard. Speaking up might.

A thought about tone and comfort

If you speak about injustice and privileged people get offended, people will condescendingly explain to you that things are easier to hear if you are nice, and that you are more likely to convince people if you speak to them respectfully.

This is true, and often important to keep in mind – but people who say that to you in a conversation about injustice are usually missing the point.

They’re ignoring something fundamentally important about addressing injustice: Sometimes, the goal is not to convince privileged people to treat others better. Sometimes, the goal is to convince marginalized people that the way they are being treated is unjust and that it’s possible to resist.

There can be a tradeoff between saying things in a way it is easy for victims to hear and saying things in a way that it is easy for privileged people to hear. Sometimes, no matter which way you say it, upsetting one group or the other is inevitable. 

When you choose to say things in a way that is easy and comfortable for marginalized people to hear, you are likely to upset privileged people who are used to being addressed deferentially in these matters. And they will make their displeasure known, and other people will lecture you about being kind and building bridges.

When you choose to say things in a way that is easy and comfortable for privileged people to hear, you are likely to hurt marginalized people who are accustomed to having their feelings disregarded. They are unlikely to complain, because complaining rarely helps and often invites retaliation. When you choose to make your words comfortable for privileged people at the expense of marginalized people, no one will lecture you about kindness, tone, or saying things in a way people can hear. It will not occur to them that it matters how the victims of injustice feel in conversations about injustice.

This dynamic will be invisible to those who lecture about tone and kindness, but it should not be invisible to you. Do not let others pressure you into disregarding the feelings of marginalized people for the sake of the powerful.