Always remember your readers are human, so are other bloggers, and so are you…

08 Jun

I thought of that when I was experiencing the mixed pleasures of a long comment thread yesterday, and thought of it again as I read a reflective piece by Bruce: Tone. I haven’t mastered it yet.

My tone with other people that is. I keep coming off as offensive when I have no such intent.

Apparently when I’m mulling something over, I make this face that scares the crap out of some people.

“Oh no, I’ve done something wrong!”, I’ve had nervously said to me , to which I’ve responded “um, no?”, before having to assure them I’m not angry with them I’m just thinking about something they’ve said. This went on repeatedly with a lady for whom I only have respect and not a hint of disapproval.

People who have seen me actually angry still think that I’m angry when I’m just being critical…

I am not sure I have mastered tone either, but I am well aware of how important it is and how difficult it is to master. It helps to imagine your reader, to try to anticipate how they might read what you have written and to write accordingly. Not always easy, I admit, and I can think of numerous occasions I have got my tone badly wrong, and other occasions, of course, when readers have got my tone wrong.

Thus, while I was impressed with the following schema recently posted by AV, I think it underrates the significance of tone.

Hierarchy of arguments


If one’s tone is badly wrong one can turn off readers, no matter how relevant, interesting, or absolutely correct one’s point of view might be. I think we react to tone far more than to almost any other aspect of an argument — but then I may be overstating my case… 😉 What do you think?

Here is a typical writing guide on the subject. Don’t be put off by the “in Business Writing” part of the title there; it has wider application, not least to blog entries.

“Tone in writing refers to the writer’s attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as one’s tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges” (Ober 88).

Are there any bloggers whose tone you admire? What makes them so admirable? Are there any whose tone is such that you never read them again, or dismiss whatever they might say? Do you react to tone, or is it something that doesn’t affect your judgement?

The more ticklish a subject the greater the problems of tone may be. That is why I admire Marcellous in his latest post Operation Centurion which deals with one of the more prickly issues of our time here in Australia.

There are those who, in the wake of the collapse of the pursuit of Bill Henson (in the courts, for the time being, at least) have pointed to Operation Centurion as the sort of thing which the police should be doing, rather than wasting their time “tramping through art galleries” (to coin Malcolm Turnbull’s phrase).

I would not be so ready as they seem to be to accept all the claims police are making for this operation. There is a lot of hype and also a lot of panic. Below is Tom Allard’s story in the SMH, with my comments and the odd emphasis added:

Child porn web broken by 70 arrests
Date: June 5 2008

Do read on. Today’s news, that “child protection advocate Hetty Johnston is moving south to tackle Sin City head on”, following the collapse of the Bill Henson crusade she initiated, adds to the piquancy of Marcellous’s post.

Jim Belshaw, coincidentally, has also been mulling over a related issue: Sunday Essay – Mark Steyn, the law and the future of blogging. Related, that is, to the fact that blogging is a form of publishing, not to the content of any other posts mentioned here. And now Thomas has written a long reflective post too!

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10 responses to “Always remember your readers are human, so are other bloggers, and so are you…

  1. AV

    June 8, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Thus, while I was impressed with the following schema recently posted by AV, I think it underrates the significance of tone. [. . .] If one’s tone is badly wrong one can turn off readers, no matter how relevant, interesting, or absolutely correct one’s point of view might be. I think we react to tone far more than to almost any other aspect of an argument — but then I may be overstating my case… 😉 What do you think?

    I think you’re correct that a poor choice of tone can turn off some readers, though it would depend on the reader. The point of the pyramid, however, is to suggest that while tone might be rhetorically important, it is substantively irrelevant. A good mastery of tone can mask a bad argument; a poor mastery of tone can mask a cogent argument; and it is a mark of good critical thinking to be able to make the distinction. The pyramid above is a means of expressing the difference between good and bad argumentation. If you wanted to focus upon the difference between good and bad communication/rhetoric, you’d need to draw a different pyramid: one which, I agree, would place tone much further up the scale.

    A related topic: Framing.

  2. ninglun

    June 8, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for raising the idea of framing.

  3. Bruce

    June 8, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    It all depends on what each party brings to the conversation doesn’t it?

    My childhood (Sigmund Freud not invited) was spent in an environment where you didn’t always express what you were feeling, not out of some macho cultural norm but out of practicality. Crime wasn’t in short supply (in particular violent crime often in some way surrounding drugs) and a display of vulnerability could invite rather unpleasant consequences.

    Many of my friends and myself had our poker faces on for most of the time. I’ve been in more than a couple of “knife fights” (I use quotation marks because it was only a knife fight in that they had a knife) and one of the guys I used to hang around sometimes, killed one of my father’s friends the year after I left Port Lincoln (shot in the head).

    I suspect that my body language has been affected more than anything else, and while I’m genuinely not a threatening person, maybe I give off one of those “stay away from” vibes to some people, some of the time.

    In more academic discussions, particularly ethics, I’ve been able to discuss without blinking, what some other people find shocking. Rationally I think that it’s all quite fair for me to discuss these things because quite a few people in the world live in such circumstances.

    For example, I can say in an ethics discussion that I confidently know that I’m capable of killing another person given certain circumstances (circumstances being at least important to utilitarian considerations). To me, this is an academic matter, but to another it may seem like some kind of dis-inhibited, post-apocalyptic-violence fantasy. I’m sure some people have been made (unnecessarily) worried about me.

    The thing is, I could go on all day with justifications for this kind of discussion.

    For example, the notion that the state has a sole monopoly on the use of force, taken as categorical, is somewhat diminished when one considers the plight of citizens where the state has collapsed and perhaps on their border is an ambitious, genocidal warlord. Should individuals in such circumstances not be able to use force against a hostile state where necessary to avoid the greater of two evils? Plenty of room for violent fantasies for sure, but also given world events (especially in Africa where ethnic cleansing and civil war have been involved) it’s not exactly irrelevant, nor do I think ignoring it the right thing to do in an education in ethics.

    Heck, I’m sure we have refugee students in the country that have this kind of thing weighing on their minds!

    Yet, in discussing this kind of thing, I’ve had profound difficulty in not raising a few eyebrows and aside from the body language and my obvious issue of tone, I’m not entirely sure that I’m entirely to blame for the misinterpretations. My interlocutors have their own experiences and/or lack thereof and they aren’t passive in the exchange.

    This does bother me a little, because while my kind of childhood is somewhat a-typical even in the lower/working classes, the kind of people often getting the wrong idea are from a middle class background. Indeed, more than one has been a middle class teacher, which considering that some of their students could have a similar background to mine, is something for concern.

    It’s even more frustrating when as a student teacher, you see your mentor is obviously oblivious to the nature one of their students lives, completely misses the point of something the kid is saying and yet are utterly confident that they are right to the point of being infallible (like the Titanic). I can see mandatory notification issues being overlooked this way and I’m just not happy about it.

    It drives me nuts*!

    * Not to be taken as me actually being driven insane, just in case my tone was off. 😉

  4. ninglun

    June 8, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    I’m sure we have refugee students in the country that have this kind of thing weighing on their minds! Indeed so, Bruce, and you are it would seem better equipped than most (myself included) to know what that is like. Your points about teachers and infallibility are only too true as well. I could go on but I won’t, except to say your comment and its frankness are much appreciated.

    All a bit deeper than my post went though, which was basically about a writing issue…

  5. Bruce

    June 8, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    All a bit deeper than my post went though, which was basically about a writing issue…

    Well, it’s been boiling up inside hasn’t it? Sorry about taking things off on somewhat of a tangent, although I think the causes are strongly related (you wouldn’t per chance happen to know if there is a term for “reader response theory” or the equivalent that describes speech and other modes of communication, would you?).

  6. ninglun

    June 9, 2008 at 12:09 am

    Not really a tangent, but rather the deeper issue of which my post touched only part, and some of that is being taken up by Thomas in his recent post I am pleased to see.

    Some insight into your question may be gained from the field of systemic (Hallidayan) linguistics, and here I shamelessly pinch someone else’s summary with due linkage:

    …Malinowski claims that the central character of languages is as ‘a mode of action and not an instrument of reflection’. This view emphasises the role of language in ‘practical action’ and as a ‘link in concerted human activity, as a piece of human behaviour’. [Ogden & Richards,1949]

    “He understood that a text written by these people into this language could not be understood by any foreigners or by people living outside this society even if translated into their own languages because each message brought more meanings than those expressed through the words, meanings that could only be understood if accompanied by the situation. Thus, Malinowski introduced the notion of context of situation, meaning by this the “environment of the text” [Halliday;1989;6]

    “ Knowledge is transmitted in social contexts, through relationships, like those of parent and child, or teacher and pupil, or classmates, that are defined in the value systems and ideology of the culture. And the words that are exchanged in these contexts get their meaning from activities in which they are embedded, which again are social activities with social agencies and goals.” [M.A.K Halliday;1989]

    Significant Contexts : the activities and goals around which the community is organized, the behaviour of the community.

    Context of Culture is very important also because it is not the immediate sights that is important but also the whole cultural history behind the text and determining the significance for the culture. Knowing where, when the text is set will help to understand the text more.

    J.R. Firth

    1) the Participants in the situation
    2) the Action of the participants
    3) other Relevant Features of the situation
    4) the Effects of the verbal action

    The three features of the context of situation

    THE FIELD OF DISCOURSE : Refers to what is happening, to the nature of the social action that is taking place.

    THE TENOR OF DISCOURSE : Refers to who is taking part, to the nature of the participants, their statuses and roles.

    THE MODE OF DISCOURSE : Refers to what part the language is playing, what is that the participants are expecting the language to do for them in that situation.

    Or “Who is saying what to whom, when, where, why and how?” as I sometimes have explained it to students. If you systematically examine a text (spoken or written) with those questions you end up with quite a detailed account of it. You can see that such analysis would include considering what the participants bring in terms of class, culture, personal experience, gender, age, and so on…

  7. Gregory Carlin

    June 22, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Interesting article, your law society rattled legal cages in London, it is a ‘hick versus cosmopolitan’ thing, if Henson’s 13 year old had agency to do X with Bill, she has agency to do X with Bill’s competitots, or distributors or go into straight kiddie erotica biz on her own account.

    (non-sexualized of course)

    So the NAVA pitch is essentially a ‘pimping fee’ for their folks, union members. I’ve no doubt talented young Caravaggios, will be protected from self-realization to help middle-aged men earn a crust from the kiddie erotica monopoly.

    Your law society verbalized legal child porn being the other little thing. A bunch of Oz eejits. I (now) don’t think the colonial thing worked too good with white Dominion people either, I don’t think it is just Mugabe who has his ‘legal’ head up his arse.

  8. ninglun

    June 22, 2008 at 8:49 am

    …and speaking of tone…

    Thanks for the response though, GC.

  9. Gregory Carlin

    June 24, 2008 at 11:30 am

    I’m a late arriver to pro-family issues, my initial training was Andy Warhol’s exploding plastic inevitable, and Iggy and the Stooges at the Whisky a Go Go,

    I didn’t completely mainstream out, until I heard the New York Dolls, they were my first step in a journey to social conservativism.

    I have always had a fondness for bands which began their careers by falling to pieces and continuing to fall to bits, that takes talent. It’s a lifestyle issue, one was either serous about drugs, or one wasn’t.

    “I would have thought my inference was quite obvious, and if anything Mr Carlin has confirmed that by constantly blurring lines between pedophilia and “gay orgs”. Not to mention that it was particularly a picture of an adolescent girl that started this whole brouhaha.”

    It ( Amsterdam), was a bit like bootlegging in Chicago, at first, two sets ran different things, and to some extent, they ignored each other, when the pro-pedophiles had their revenue nailed down, they targeted the non-pedophiles, there was only room for the one set, and the non-pedophiles had to go, it ws the same in London, with the GLF radicals. They hijacked the movement, which was ‘sexual radicalism’ rather than Queerdom.

    The original COC objective was integration, the pro-gay thing was ‘progress’ for Queers, about 1965, (I wasn’t there), a decision was taken to mainstream the sub-culture, eventally the rainbow coalition, or the acronymic rights culture emerged. That was a pro-pedophiile construct.

    So, LGBT that kind of thing derived from what was happening in Amsterdam. It’s now natural to asume it is one ‘commonwealth’ and in some respects it may be a social one. My mission over decades was to keep the ‘P’ out of it, I’ve (lately) largely ignored everything else. At one point ( as I’ve said) I was a pro-sexual radicalism advocate.

    ‘These orga­nizations also suggested more radical objec­tives such as the aboli­tion of marria­ge, of coupledom and gender and sexual dicho­tomy. In the language of those times, Zelden­rust-Noordanus stated “homo­sexuality does not exist”, meaning there was no separate homo- or hete­rosexual iden­tity. Both organiza­tions sup­ported erotic diver­sity inclu­ding pedop­hilia, sadoma­sochism and exhibitio­nism.’

    It was a ‘will to power’ scenario with the pro-pedophiles. One wasn’t by necessity, made in a mould, or a template, to be X, one became X.


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