Phrases and tone

I overheard a conversation yesterday that set my teeth on edge. A couple guys were jump-starting a woman’s car, and bitching at her for standing around. “What are you doing? You have to get in the car and turn it on!” With an obvious message of “you stupid person, why are you wasting our time?” She, presumably having her car jump-started for the first time, snapped back, “Well, I didn’t know that, did I?!”

A former coworker would, if they were explaining something and you had a question, draw in a breath, say, “Again,” and proceed to explain everything from the top down one more time. Their tone, with the implication that you had understood nothing at all, was guaranteed to make the other person either enraged or depressed, depending on their feeling of self-worth at the time.

Moderating tone is one of the hardest challenges I have faced. If you’re feeling the slightest bit off balance, it’s so easy to let a bit of sharpness color your words. It can be satisfying, let’s not pretend otherwise, to see a barb land (and of course we feel that those barbs are well-deserved at the time we make them). If you’ve made a habit of being irritable and are trying to stop, you may find, as I did, that your family still reads that tone into even innocuous statements. Fairly.

What does it take to break this habit?

1. Grow up. No, seriously, modulating your tone does get a bit easier with maturity. How can anyone be expected to be reasonable at 13 with half a liter of hormones rocketing around inside them?

2. Check yourself. If bitchiness feels like a permanent state, it’s worth taking a hard look at whether there are changeable factors in your situation. Are you getting enough sleep? Drinking enough fluids? Blood sugar OK? Is your job a good fit, or could you be happier somewhere else?

3. Ask for help. When I started a new job I flat out told everyone that I know I’m impatient sometimes, and asked them to let me know in the moment if I am.

4. Is crankiness part of your job description? Probably not. At work, it can help to remember that you’re getting paid to do your job well, which typically includes not making other people miserable.

5. Tap into empathy. Try to extend the grace to the person you’re tempted to snark at that you wish they would extend to you. You don’t know what’s going on with them and you don’t want to be the person yelling at them for using the wrong ink color if their puppy died this morning.

This is all going to take time (especially that first one, if you’re reading this at age 13). Until then, the most important thing you can do is recognize and acknowledge when you’ve made a misstep in tone or phrasing. Immediately if you can; as soon as you’ve cooled off if not. Apologizing is not enough to fix the damage you’re doing, but it may keep you from making it worse.

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