Checking your emails for tone

The internet age has spawned huge numbers of incidents where people have sent emails that have inadvertently offended the recipient because the sender was not sensitive enough to the absence in written messages of the important cues that accompany the spoken word, where facial expressions and tone of voice and inflexions can provide helpful clues to the speaker’s benign intent.

Emoticons are one option as a partial substitute but some people (and I am one of them) find it uncomfortable to use them. Besides, it requires the sender to already be aware that the words might be misconstrued. But how does one guard against unwittingly sending off an email that might trigger irritation or anger even though one had no intention whatsoever of doing so?

What technology taketh away, it also giveth and it turns out that there is now software called Tone Check that can be embedded in your mail client that monitors your email as you are typing it and rates it for tone, thus warning you in real time if you are in danger of heading into the red zone.

The creator of the software was interviewed on the radio show On the Media explaining how it works.

The comic strip xkcd previously had another suggestion for dealing with this same problem.


  1. says

    This is an intractable problem, because the actual information in tone is normally to be provided by the voice itself. There’s no voice in written communications, so by default we’ve lost the channel through which the meta-information was conveyed.

    In its place, we have conventions regulating diction as to which words are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” tone. It’s all a game of manipulating fluid connotation and predicting — accurately or not — what kinds of perceptions and biases the reader is prone to.

    No matter how well written, there will always be the possibility of someone egregiously misconstruing the intent behind your writing. There’s an inherent conflict between writer and reader here that can’t be won in any fixed sense.

    Lewis Carroll put it like this:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

  2. left0ver1under says

    The speed with which people can read and reply has made them think less and reply quicker, with lightning – and kneejerk – reactions.

    In days when newsprint and magazines were the rule, people read and re-read the words before writing letters to the editor. They had to go by snail mail, it took time to write and people took more time to think about what to write. Now, though, the immediacy of receiving and responding has made people skip the step of considering and re-reading what they saw, to notice when there is a difference between, sarcasm and irony on one hand and insults and insinuations on the other.

    People are assuming the worst instead of checking to see if they understood properly. Some do that because they want a reason to vent, to pretend there was something offensive, or they want an excuse to lay into someone. But more often, it’s because people wee too impatient to think before writing, too unwilling to allow someone to correct or explain themselves. It went by the wayside around the same time that outshouting people replaced debate in public and in the media.

  3. Tracey says

    This post is for me! More than once I’ve meant something in a light-hearted or silly fashion and been taken seriously. I think that’s why I use emoticons, even though I’m not-so-young myself; I’ve learned the hard way that because of my own issues conveying tone via the written word, it’s better to use them than to be misunderstood.

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