Don't look at me in that tone of voice
December 25, 2010 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for suggestions and general thoughts on the subject of how to improve one's tone of voice.

My tone often betrays my negative inner thoughts. I will surprise my self by saying something in an aggressive, patronizing or skeptical manner, despite efforts to maintain a calm, neutral appearance.

Also, listening to recordings of my dialog, I am unhappy with how often my voice comes across, as jaded, anxious, sarcastic, ironic, often inappropriately.

If it's relevant, I have had problems in the past with social interaction. I seem to get a kick out of being tactless. It's something I am battling with, but have under control for the most part, but tone is my biggest big problem .

Of course I would like to become a more relaxed and positive person in general, then I can just let it all hang out, and I'm working on that, but in the mean time I need to behave myself in certain contexts. Any tips? (I am in the UK)
posted by choppyes to Human Relations (16 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I have read that if you make yourself smile, it comes through in your tone of voice. But that might have just been salesperson self-help woo.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:08 PM on December 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Reading your headline, I assumed this was a physiological issue of some sort, but then reading further, that does not appear to be the case. As the 2 previous replies indicate, a change in mindset is required. I would make it your goal to achieve some sort of personal growth. Perhaps some spiritual quest .
posted by allelopath at 7:26 PM on December 25, 2010

Pretend you're speaking to your grandmother (or some other person who shows you unconditional love and thus has earned a kind tone from you even when you're feeling exasperated). Or pretend you're a spy and have to do a great job of sounding diplomatic at all times.

The idea in either case is to pay attention to your tone all the time and strive for the tone you're aiming for.
posted by ldthomps at 7:39 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the "smile as you speak" thing. It works over the phone, it works in person even better. I used to have problems with 'tone of voice', coming off as angry or sarcastic or snide, and now, with a forced smile on my face as I speak, I am frequently complimented on the sound of my voice over the phone and in person, all the while maintaining my general fear and loathing for all humankind. If I can do it, so can you! :D
posted by The otter lady at 7:54 PM on December 25, 2010 [13 favorites]

Yeah, it's a goofy trick, but it really does work.

As painful as it might be, also try recording some of your phone conversations or the like. It will give you some feedback as to how you sound.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:08 PM on December 25, 2010

Seconding the "smile as you speak" thing. It works over the phone, it works in person even better.

A lot of customer service people have mirrors on their desks so they can see their faces while they are on the phone. Smiling faces equals smiling customers, I guess.

Personally, I keep a rubber band stretched around my palm at all times during the work day or social gatherings. I'm a fiddler, so I constantly play with it, and I use it as a reminder to talk less and listen more. Maybe you could get a little totem like that to remind you to think kinder thoughts.
posted by Think_Long at 8:46 PM on December 25, 2010

I agree with smiling more, but IMO, real politeness stems from genuine sympathy for others. This site right here is a pretty decent place to practice modeling what others are going through, expressing your sympathies, and trying to say something wise to people, instead of snarking at easy targets. There's even more action like that to be had over at If you feel you lack the inner resources to find the right thing to say, that's a deep issue. Maybe read some Dale Carnegie or Thich Nhat Hanh or other wisdom texts that will give you starting points, and you might try spending some time looking at pictures of other people--sympathetic portraits, yearbooks, etc.--imagining everything those people could be in life, and really thinking about how their quirks and unfortunate features are nonetheless lovable and deserving of your kindness, no matter how much your cynicism may also be applicable.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:58 PM on December 25, 2010

I have a friend who is extraordinarily sensitive to tone of voice. The slightest bit of sarcasm and she gets upset. It's helped me learn to moderate my tone and I try to think for a couple of seconds before I say something, to help prevent me from using a negative tone.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:47 PM on December 25, 2010

Best answer: Breathing, and taking your time to speak, will help to calm nerves and let you compose an appropriate response. You might be talking more quickly than you assume; that can be interpreted as aggression. Smiling definitely helps place your voice in a 'brighter' position.

Bodily or emotional tension is easily leaked in vocal tone. (And sensed, in its own right.) This may sound glib, but any practice that gives you a sense of physical competence/confidence & awareness - sport, yoga, fitness - will help with posture and relaxation. This will extend beyond the gym. There's an almost endless list of benefits to fitness for people who've dealt with anxiety - confidence gained by structured movement towards small goals; improved mood; physical health and attractiveness; and if you're doing a sport, fun, even. Anyway, I promise you'll chill out a bit, cross your arms a little less, stand taller. It's a cliche because it's true (well, it has been for me).

You could also practise modulating your tone, using more inflection than you think is necessary. (Particularly if you're an introvert. You might think you're being blindingly obvious, but not everyone is as sensitive as you may be.) This could come across as sarcastic if you try it out in the world first, but even if you do it at home, it stretches the boundaries of your repertoire, and will make smaller inflections seem less impossible.

If being a sarcastic outsider has been important to your identity, it'll take time to cultivate an open, sincere attitude to others. It's hard to hold incompatible attitudes at the same time. If you have no respect for, or interest in, the people you're talking to, it will be difficult to do much on the 'faking it' side.

Really try to be open. Take others as they profess themselves to be; just take them in, period. Listen. Fight the impulse to undermine others for the sake of a well timed joke, or to write them off as cartoons.

Good luck. It's awful to feel you're being read wrong. (Sorry if I've done just that!)
posted by nelljie at 1:42 AM on December 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

This won't help you, but my mate interviews (wealthy) crims for a living and he once spoke about how he commands attention with them. He said that he controls his tone by not blinking.

Avon from Blake's 7 does this all the time. Creates terrific presence.
posted by Sutekh at 4:13 AM on December 26, 2010

I have read that if you make yourself smile, it comes through in your tone of voice. But that might have just been salesperson self-help woo.

It makes an enormous difference in the tone of your voice. Try it in private, perhaps record, and hear the difference!
posted by jgirl at 5:21 AM on December 26, 2010

I highly recommend Toastmasters (a world-wide organization)

While you may not need to be giving speeches or anything like that - it's a great step by step process to learn how to speak better in many situations.
posted by emjay at 9:12 AM on December 26, 2010

There are days when an open, sincere attitude toward others is just not happening for me. On dark, drizzly days when I'm low on sleep and have been driving myself too hard, all people start looking loathsome to me. When I half-fear I may snap and yell something like, "Out of my way, you shambling meatbags!" I do a little emergency attitude reorientation by pretending that everyone I meet is secretly a magnificent poet or artist.
posted by sculpin at 11:46 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Act. Channel the person you'd like to sound like. Watch Liam Neeson in Taken for the epitome of cool, calm and collected.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:51 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Smiling really does help your voice sound easier and more relaxed (or rather, we associate the physiological changes that smiling makes in vocal production with a mood of ease and relaxation). So if you're in a "fake it 'til you make it" mode, smiles will help.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:29 PM on December 26, 2010

Yes, smiling really does work. After 19 years as a radio DJ and countless airchecks, I could always tell when I was smiling on air. Also slowing down down can help even out your tone. If you're discussing something sensitive or very serious, drop into a lower register and talk softly. I also recommend relaxing into your natural accent. Don't try to sound like an announcer, it doesn't ring true to most people's ears IRL.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:36 PM on December 26, 2010

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