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  1. Blog
  2. Allyship

Tone Policing: The Problem with Gatekeeping Emotions

‘You need to calm down’

Mops on a red wall
Photo courtesy of Pan Xiaozhen

Have you ever been told to calm down or make your tone more palatable when making a point? 

If so, you’ve experienced tone policing, a conversational tool used by people in positions of power and privilege to derail a discussion or argument by focusing on the emotional delivery and tone of a message, rather than the content of a message itself. 

Dr. Maurie Lung, a psychologist and adventure-based therapy expert, explains that the impact of tone policing is dangerous because people in power, usually white men, are able to cast doubt on the validity of feelings and experiences regarding oppression, racism, and discrimination shared by people of marginalized groups. 

Here, we’ll dive into examples of how tone policing impacts women and people from marginalized groups, why it’s problematic, how it can spiral into gaslighting and reinforcing false ideas of professionalism, and how we can change our behavior to be better, more inclusive allies. 

Read more: Code-Switching: How Marginalized Employees Navigate Oppression at Work

Examples of how tone policing manifests 

Often, tone policing propagates the idea that conversations and debates must be delivered in a calm voice and demeanor in order to be productive—and it’s usually targeted at women and other marginalized groups. Lung says, “The most common way I see [tone policing] manifesting is [through] the feedback culture that’s created by verbalizing that ‘if only’ the message was conveyed in a different way, then it would be heard.” 

All too often, white men are able to label and dismiss feminists and their words as radical, angry, irrational, or emotional while they conveniently get to deny responsibility and ignore their own oppressive behavior. But it doesn’t stop at adjective-sexism—let’s look at other examples. 

Say a Black woman is voicing her frustration regarding pay inequity with a white male coworker and when she’s done speaking, he replies with, “I get your point, but don’t you think more people would listen to you if you weren’t so emotional about it?” 

Or maybe another woman employee is explaining to her colleague how ridiculous it is that men get to make decisions about women’s bodies and he says, “Your tone is exactly why men get turned off when women talk about women’s issues.”

Finally, let’s pretend a BIPOC employee is explaining how infuriating it is that most people don’t know that Native women are murdered at rates 10 times the national average, and their colleague responds with, “It’s hard to take in your points when you’re so loud and angry. Can’t you calm down and have a civil conversation?”

These examples of tone policing rely on condescension to deny that emotion and reason can coexist. The more privileged person in the conversation is able to regain control of a discussion when they feel uncomfortable with the subject matter by drawing attention to the emotionality of the oppressed speaker. 

Because of this tactic, the fight for equality becomes a catch-22 where it’s the sole responsibility of the already-burdened, marginalized person to fight for change in a space where the message is not welcomed unless it fits into a box of how the oppressor wants to receive it. 

Read more: What Is a Male Feminist, Anyway?

Why is tone policing problematic?

Lung says, “Tone policing invalidates the content of the conversation by redirecting the focus on the emotion through a passive, or not-so passive, attack specifically on the tone instead of the content message. Additionally, in a work setting, it actively pushes against the values inclusion. It allows the potential of compassion for another's human experience to be squashed, which [strays the conversation] even further [away] from healing and equity.”

That’s the problem—tone policing keeps oppressed individuals and the issues they raise silenced, perpetuating an exclusive culture. The truth is that no one is going to talk about systemic issues like racism or sexism in a positive or pleasant way. We’re talking about dangerous ideals and behaviors that impact the lives of entire groups of people, not about rainbows and flowers. Emotion is often used as a tool within activism, and to insist that marginalized groups rationally or calmly inform people in power of their unjust experiences is incredibly threatening to a person’s mental health and wellbeing.

It becomes a form of gaslighting. Tone policing manipulates individuals into doubting their own lived experiences, memory, perception, and judgment. In a Medium essay, writer Tess Martin says, “If you can successfully shut another person down based on her anger or frustration, then you don’t ever have to answer for your own racist conduct. And, bonus, by remaining cool as a cucumber, you appear to be in the right to those around you, especially in comparison to the irate person you just insulted with your belittling behavior.”

This type of gaslighting even goes as far as to reinforce false ideas of what “professionalism” means in the workplace. Drawing attention to and questioning someone’s emotional expression undermines their professionalism. But being professional doesn’t equal being an emotionless zombie. Oppression and inequality will continue to flourish in and out of the workplace as long as people in powerful, privileged positions act as the gatekeepers of acceptable behaviors during conversations. 

Read more: Why ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ Is an Excuse for Bad Behavior

How do we move toward inclusion?

For starters, we’re human. We have to recognize that it’s perfectly acceptable and normal to express our emotions when talking about unjust situations or matters that make us upset or angry. Normalize emotionally-charged conversation and healthy expressions of anger. 

Second, it’s important to understand that not all conversations are meant to lead toward a solution. Some conversations are meant to provide a safe space to vent, explore perspectives, and find solace and community when discussing an isolating topic or hardship. 

And in order to be an ally to marginalized groups and promote inclusivity, privileged people must get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations. If you’re in a majority community, take a moment to think about why discussing topics like racism, sexism, and homophobia might make you uncomfortable. If you want to be an ally, you have to be an active, empathetic listener willing to learn—and unlearn—without passing judgement or offering unwelcome opinions. 

If you overhear someone else tone policing a colleague or friend, call them out. We have to hold everyone, including ourselves, accountable. The more we listen to the experiences, thoughts, and raw emotions of marginalized groups of people, the better equipped we are to call for real change and inclusion. 

Read more: How to Hold Space for Your Coworkers (& Why You Should)

About our source

Maurie Lung, PhD., LMHC, LMFT, integrates almost 30 years of experience in recreation, education, psychology, and evaluation to provide therapeutic services in a community-based organization she founded, Life Adventures, and as an associate professor overseeing the Adventure-based and Nature-based Counseling programs at Prescott College. Additionally, Maurie consults organizations and is a qualified supervisor of mental health interns. Maurie utilizes experiential methodology to provide services with a diverse client population.

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