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I’m used to being the only black woman on my team at work. 

And over the last decade, I learned how to navigate the ebbs and flows of corporate culture and found the perfect balance of professionalism and being my authentic self. 

Or so I thought. 

It wasn’t until recently that I became familiar with the term, “tone policing.” 

That’s because it wasn’t until recently that I, myself, was “tone policed.” 

Essentially, the term refers to “a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or otherwise emotionally charged manner.”

In my case, I was reported by an executive for being “defensive” when I was merely communicating my reasoning for a creative direction. Apparently, speaking with emotion and passion while being black is a crime worth being reprimanded for. 

Apparently, speaking with emotion and passion while being black is a crime worth being reprimanded for.

In the conversation, she dismissed the entire idea and instead misinterpreted my explanation as being “delivered in an angry” manner. I know myself when I’m angry and defensive. And trust me, that was not it. 

On top of that, the executive had no concrete evidence other than her subjective experience to add to her report. And my supervisor and team lead weren’t backing me up because, well, the executives have the final say. 

I put my two week notice in shortly after. 

I had no job lined up, hardly any interviews but at least I had my dignity. And I was not going to let someone’s lack of cultural competency and personal bias take that from me. 

On the other hand, I understand that most folks who “tone police” don’t know that they’re doing it. It’s a subconscious response to societal fallacies the individual believes and hasn’t challenged for themselves. 

For example, a man calling a woman “bossy” because she’s providing directions during a meeting isn’t a result of her tone. It’s his perception of a woman’s ability to lead. If he took the time to acknowledge his implicit bias towards women in leadership and addressed it in a healthy way, he wouldn’t make snarky, backhanded comments to validate his subconscious dogma. He’d just listen. 

Here’s the challenging part. We — as colleagues, friends, citizens of whatever country you call home — have to take the initiative to dig deep and recognize where our perspectives on others have been clouded by unhealthy societal norms. Because we all carry some type of bias that impacts our ability to correctly interpret certain conversations. 

Along with that self-reflection, it’s good practice (in really any type of conversation) to think before you speak. When you’re confronted with a difficult conversation and you’re not quite sure about the individual’s tone, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I objectively responding to the conversation?
  2. Am I adding layers by interpreting their tone through my perspective?
  3. What is this individual trying to convey in this conversation? 
  4. What questions can I ask to clarify their intention? 
  5. Am I making any assumptions? 

These questions can make all the difference over the lifetime of your relationships.

It may seem like a lot but just a few extra moments to process these questions can make all the difference over the lifetime of your relationships, whether they’re professional or personal. 

Our backgrounds, cultures, and experiences shape how we speak and present ourselves but if you think about it, we’re not that different from each other. We’re all human at the end of the day, trying to figure out this thing we call “life.”

Let’s try and remember that the next time we jump to conclusions, try to label someone unfairly or tone police. 

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