“In the Church, we want everyone to feel welcome, safe, and valued, and of course, there is room to ask questions. But how we ask is just as important as what we ask.”
In this statement regarding communication in the Church, Ally Isom makes a distinction between the “how” of questioning and the “what.” To begin with, I’d like to address the interpretation that what we ask or say is less important than whether the message conforms to a contextually appropriate how. Most people, I think, can feel the untruth of this. As one friend put it, “Saying it sweetly don’t mean you’re sweet.” Some refer to this as the “bless your heart” phenomenon—the idea that linguistic venom can somehow be alleviated by adding a little semantic sugar. But even under sugar, bitterness can still be tasted. The what matters, and being sweetly or jokingly mean is still being mean.
The second aspect of Isom’s statement, the how, has frequently been reduced to one word: tone. Often, tone is understood to mean the emotional characteristic of voice, either written or spoken—whether we sound happy, upset, depressed, angry, contemplative. Some may also understand it as referring to register—formal, casual, direct, etc. (speaking differently with our friends than we do with our boss or colleagues or our children). Tone can also involve language features such as word stress, pitch, volume, and speech rate, all of which contribute to meaning.
In all of these instances, tone is an aspect of pragmatics, which is a branch of linguistic study dedicated to explaining “how language users are able to use context to interpret utterances, to ‘do’ things with words, and to ‘say’ things without actually uttering them” (Parker & Riley; emphasis added).