Voice and words don't match
January 18, 2013 12:01 PM   Subscribe

What do you do when someone has trouble hearing and moderating their own tone of voice? They often come off harsher and more hostile than they intend when they are frustrated.

If he is under stress his voice takes on an undeniable harsh, hostile edge that he is apparently unaware of. It doesn't really matter who he is speaking with or what he is talking about, when he has reached that level of frustration his tone of voice comes off as angry. Not shouty or scary. More irate and exasperated and intensely frustrated. He could be telling me that tomorrow evening we're having fish for supper and he would sound angry about it even though I know it is his favourite. He could be thanking me for emptying the dishwasher but he would sound sarcastic and insincere when I know it is absolutely sincere and it wasn't sarcastic. Basically, he just sounds pissed off at the world and everything in it. Even when he talks to himself (which is often) he will be speaking with hostility in his voice. I'd understand and be more-or-less okay with him being cranky at me if I did something to piss him off. But this is when no one has done anything to earn his crankiness.

When I call him out on it he always says "But I'm not angry with you" or something along those lines. His thought is that since he wasn't angry at whoever he was speaking to, he didn't speak to them that way. OR if he did, they should hopefully be able to over look it and understand that he isn't angry at them. He has asked that I try to hear what he is saying and not react to his tone of voice when he gets that way, but I can only do that so much before I get frustrated myself.

- A big part of the problem is that he is slow to realize/acknowledge when he is in a bad mood or particularly stressed out.
- He has said over and over that he just DOESN'T hear his tone of voice, and he is totally unaware when he does it and I believe he is telling the truth when he says this. I really don't think he hears himself speaking that way.
- He has also admitted that this has been something people have called him on for most of his life. I'm not the first to bring it up, but I am the first to approach it calmly and see it as something WE can work on instead of some big flaw of his.
- He usually ends up feeling guilty for it when I call him out on it because he doesn't like having his loved ones think he is angry with them when he isn't. Sort of the same way you'd feel guilty finding out that you had horrible BO all day and you sicked everyone out by your stench but you only found out later. Keeping with the BO metaphor, he wants to learn how to keep his stink contained AND hopefully learn not stink at all.

Because this is AskMeFi and a lot of us (myself in included) are always keeping an eye out for red flags and warning behaviours, and I don't want people to think I'm in some disfunctional relationship with an angry douche nozzle of a man, it bares stating my fiance is awesome. He is thoughtful, affectionate, caring, generous, and considerate. He is hard working, an amazing father, a phenomenal lover, and hilarious and entertaining and fun. He makes me feel extremely loved and protected and safe, but also makes me feel strong and capable. When we have arguments/disagreements, there is never yelling or name calling or anything like that. It doesn't get angry or mean. At worst he will occasionally "talk a walk" mid-argument to clear his head and keep things from getting heated. We always are able to discuss and talk things out, and resolve things respecfully. I love him and I feel extremely lucky to not only have him in my life, but that I get to look forward to spending my life with him. High fives all around. I say this because this issue is NOT some damning deal breaker type thing. It isn't abusive, harmful, wounding, or mean-spirited. It is relatively infrequent (couple times a month at most) and mostly it is just annoying. It is annoying having someone be cranky/angry with you when you didn't do anything to earn it and when they don't really feel that way.

ALSO, and this is important I think, he DOES want to change this about himself. He is finally admitting it happens (have had impartial 3rd party witness and comment on it recently and confirm everything I've been saying) and he wants to do better at it. This isn't just me saying "FIX HIM!". This is both of us looking for ways to improve this. I'm also not looking for 100% success rate.

So what do you think? How can I help him be more aware of his tone of voice? Or what can he do on his own to control it better?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Human Relations (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Come up with a subtle hand gesture or code word or both, something you can do or say without betraying any hint of emotion. This keeps his own fight-or-flight defensive reflex from kicking in, like if you were to say "Hey, don't do that!" or throw up your hands.

Instead, you just run a finger down your forearm like you're telling him to steal second or say "faybaz" in a calm tone of voice. If that doesn't work, you do/say it one more time (or you switch to the other thing if you've set up both), and then after that, you just disengage. Walk away, turn your head, whatever it takes. Both of you need to agree that you give him two warnings, and then you're done.

Then work with him on his script for when you "faybaz" him. Do you want him to apologize or just stop? Do you want him to continue but in a lower voice, or to rewind and start the whole conversation again? Also get a script for when you disengage if he doesn't get the after a double-faybazzing. They do not have to be the same. They can include a time limit ("You must apologize within 5 minutes") or the reverse ("Don't try to talk to me for 5 minutes").

As long as you both understand that you're not trying to train him, you'll be fine. That's the main thing.
posted by Etrigan at 12:14 PM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

This sounds like a situation where pseudostrabismus's ding training would work a treat, especially since he's wanting to change.
posted by headnsouth at 12:19 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Does he have hearing issues in general or just with his tone of voice? He might want to get that checked.
posted by brujita at 12:26 PM on January 18, 2013

Response by poster: No hearing issues, and he hears and understands other people's tone alright (except sarcasm sometimes goes over his head.)

The gesture/word signal is a good idea.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:29 PM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: Yeah, I completely agree with the above tactics. It sounds like he needs to become more aware of his emotional state and how it impacts you, and that you may be able to help him with that. (I also think it's kinda bizarre that he didn't just believe your experience of him and required third party verification of his own behavior. Does he see you as too sensitive or discount your perspective in general? But all that is a digression.) It might also be worth working with him to find out what he needs when he is feeling stressed/frustrated. It may be that he needs some time alone to process how he's feeling, or that he needs someone to listen and be reassuring, or to go to the gym, or do something mindless for a half an hour, etc, etc. While he is unaware/distantly aware of his emotional state, he is unable to give himself or ask from others what he needs to feel better. So by all means help him become aware of his frustrated tone, but also work with figuring out what he needs in that moment. Also, be aware that chronic anger/frustration/irritability often cloaks feelings of vulnerability/sadness/helplessness, especially in men, as the expression of those feelings tends to be more societally prohibited. "Depression in men, on the other hand, may be more likely to cause them to be irritable, aggressive, or hostile." If he is having other symptoms of depression, it might be worth looking into therapy.
posted by amileighs at 12:37 PM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Can you both agree to a "check in" type system?

i.e. "It sounds like you're upset or tense. Is that the case?" Then he can answer yes or no. If the answer is yes, that doesn't imply any fault (or duty) on your part. If the answer is no, believe him, and let it slide off your back.

This sort of thing has always been a challenge for me because I am the type to feel responsible for the happiness of the people around me -- if you feel this way too, that could be a thing that you address independently. Good luck.
posted by trunk muffins at 12:38 PM on January 18, 2013

Mr. wintersweet used to speak really loudly when he was even mildly worked up about something. I told him it bothered me and it made me feel he was angry when he wasn't. Eventually I just started saying "I'm right here" :) or occasionally "Hey, no need for lecture mode" :) (he is actually a teacher--slipping into lecture mode is understandable!). This avoids the "You're too loud! Shh!" thing, which would annoy me if I were him, too. It hardly ever happens anymore, and I expect he's quit doing it around other people so much too.
posted by wintersweet at 12:54 PM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: I do this with my partner. I'm the one who doesn't hear my own tone. (Or didn't, initially, anyway.)

There are two things we do: 1) I try really hard to notice when I'm doing it. I don't always catch it. But I try. When I do notice myself saying something with a defensive or aggressive tone that I don't intend, I try to immediately say, "I mean that in X way, not in Y. I am feeling X kind of feeling right now." Basically, I try to make my intention clear, even if my tone isn't. 2) My boyfriend tells me when I'm doing it. I apologize for sounding antagonistic, and then explain what my actual intentions were, as above.

These seem to help, though they're not always enough.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:57 PM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

My mom does this. I know that her intentions are good that she really cares about people (well, some of the time) but it's getting to the point where my daughter doesn't want to visit her anymore because "she's mean". She gets her feelings hurt all the time because people get frustrated and shout back at her and she doesn't understand why.

Anyway, I have often thought about video taping her and playing it back so she can see what it sounds like. Maybe something like that would work but it seems like working through with a disinterested party like a voice coach or therapist might be easier for him (and you).
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:59 PM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: Have you asked him what would be most helpful for him, specifically, given his personality and learning style? Because so many great ideas in this thread, and I would think some might be a fit for some people, some for others.

My husband and I (I know this will surprise nobody here) are terribly blunt when it's just the two of us, and say things like "Sweetie, you're shouting" or "Sweety, you're boring me now". When we're with others, it's more complicated, but we do have a rule that it's okay to interrupt each other if and only if we've gone off the rails in a way we've talked about wanting to work on, so just the unaccustomed interruption is generally enough of a wake-up call.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:08 PM on January 18, 2013

Voice coaching. I mean this 100% sincerely - using a voice coach will help him be more aware of what he sounds like all the time and give him the tools to consciously change what he sounds like

How do you find a voice coach who does this sort of work? Is it different from a singing coach?
posted by Ery at 1:27 PM on January 18, 2013

His thought is that since he wasn't angry at whoever he was speaking to, he didn't speak to them that way. OR if he did, they should hopefully be able to over look it and understand that he isn't angry at them. He has asked that I try to hear what he is saying and not react to his tone of voice when he gets that way, but I can only do that so much before I get frustrated myself.

This jumped out at me. Does he get that this is unfair to you? I mean, it looks like you're telling him, "This is hard for me to deal with," and he's replying with, "Yeah, but it's hard for me to fix, so can't you just deal with it?"

There are clear social norms about tone of voice and nonverbal communication that put the burden squarely on him here. Does he get that? I mean, in addition to wanting to change to make you happier.

I believe you when you say that he's not abusive and otherwise makes you feel safe. Otherwise nice and emotionally available people can have little hangups like this that don't directly translate into bad behavior on other fronts the way we'd expect or sometimes fear. But are you sure you know where that hostility you're hearing is coming from, and where it ultimately disappears to?
posted by alphanerd at 1:35 PM on January 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

I would start with a speech and hearing assessment. Just because he's not saying "huh" all the time doesn't mean he doesn't have an auditory processing disorder. The speech therapist will be able to tell you what kind of professional to pursue treatment with.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:44 PM on January 18, 2013

it sounds like maybe there is an undercurrent of anger running through him. i think it would be wise to get to the bottom of it. i don't tend to think a person speaks in an angry manner unless they really are angry, but it may be on an unconscious level and about something from his past. some sort of therapy would probably help.
posted by wildflower at 1:57 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does he get that this is unfair to you?


OP, how about letting a trained speech therapist take a crack at it.
posted by Kruger5 at 1:59 PM on January 18, 2013

I agree with voice coaching and hearing tests and speech therapy.

If you have a smart phone, randomly record conversations so that he can hear both "good" and "bad" examples. It'll be interesting to see if he can hear the difference.

Record yourself too--play a "good" example and a "bad" example for him and see if he hears the difference.
posted by vitabellosi at 2:03 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just because his hearing is fine, doesn't mean that he's actually hearing fine.

I do what they do at times, and I've had people ask me to lower my voice as a result, even though I didn't think I w being overly loud or harsh. Turns out that, after a thorough hearing evaluation, I have a bit of Central Auditory Processing Disorder, and it's (in my case) related to my ADHD. so he may have something like that going on, and it's something that regular hearing tests won't pick up on.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:12 PM on January 18, 2013

My take, going off my own experiences with similar issues, would be that he has a bit of an anger issue and the 'tone of voice' thing is kind of a red herring. If he wants to fix it he can work on calming down, and the tone will follow naturally. I don't even know that speech therapy of some stripe is a great idea; does he want to mask his anger, or learn to modulate it?
posted by kmennie at 2:35 PM on January 18, 2013

Best answer:
When I call him out on it he always says "But I'm not angry with you" or something along those lines.
This is a little out of left field, but I'm wondering if he grew up in a family where expressing anger was considered shameful or taboo. For people from that sort of background, "RANT RANT SHOUT SHOUT no of course I'm not angry!" sometimes really means "Well duh I'm angry, but it's not polite to admit it out loud."
posted by and so but then, we at 3:14 PM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Another theory: does he have ADD? My spouse and I both have ADD, and we also both have problems with tone sometimes. I think it's related to impulse control. We have found it very, very hard to fix.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:17 PM on January 18, 2013

I only know about this in context of relatively mild autism spectrum disorders. To be clear, I have no idea if that's what's going on at all. Many people with autism spectrum disorders are shockingly good at faking at being normal, but it falls apart a bit when they're stressed, really tired, etc. The very fact that he is unable to "read" his vocal tone and the mild thing about sarcasm make me wonder. Of course we all sort of have the tendency to be a bit assish when we're stressed, so, who knows really.

Anyway, if it is an autism spectrum thing, it's usually enough to simply convince them that they are doing this annoying thing that is literally invisible to them. It would be like me trying to convince you that there is a green mist in the room that you can't see. It would take quite a while and possibly a lot of backup from third parties (enormously frustrating!)

However, once you convince them that this thing (angry vocal tone) exists, you can usually just say "you're doing that thing with the angry voice" and if they trust you and are not too overwhelmed and stressed, then they'll try to change and figure out how to do a different thing. You might not like the new thing, so you should try to provide an obvious and acceptable substitute so he doesn't start doing something else annoying.

So if a mild autism spectrum disorder were the cause of this behavior you have already done most of the hard work just by convincing him that there is, in fact, a problem. But again, I have no idea if an autism spectrum disorder is even possible or relevant. Beats me. Hopefully this is helpful anyway.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:13 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, the talking to himself is something else I've seen in people with high-functioning autism (but they try to mask it or hide it). Frequently talking to himself when other people are in the room is odd enough that it makes me wonder.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:19 PM on January 19, 2013

I'm late to this thread, but boy do I feel you. My husband and I just had an argument about this LITERALLY last night. My husband is a fabulous man in many other ways, but I do want to tell you: regardless of how fabulous he is, my husband's tone thing can really wear me down. I don't say that as a way to warn you off your fiance, more just to encourage you to have realistic expectations. Before we were married, I asked myself: if this one thing never changes, will I be able to live with it? The answer is: usually, yes, until I just want to kill him :)

So don't expect fast or easy change -- I'm sure you know this. Other posters above have noted that if you are really sensitive to tone (me!) and a people-pleaser that feels a little too responsible for others' happiness (also me!) those are things you can work on for yourself that are (a) probably good to address anyway and (b) will help you not take the tone stuff personally.

(Obviously I'm projecting all of my angst onto you here, so feel free to disregard.)

Finally, one thing my husband does that helps is take my request to change his tone seriously, but lightly. I don't know if I can articulate this.

I had a real struggle getting my husband to not only think I was being overly sensitive, but to also see that he has a problem. I think that's because he feels so terrible if he thinks he's hurt me, that taking my request seriously means acknowledging OMG I'VE HURT HER AND AM POSSIBLY RUDE TO FRIENDS THAT I ALSO LOVE DOES NOT COMPUTE.

Instead, I want him to view my request as something more along the lines of "hey, not a huge deal but knock it off" rather than "you have hurt my feelings terribly and now we will be unhappy forever". I feel like the key getting him to see that I don't think he's an asshole, I just want him to modulate his tone sometimes.

Because over time it can REALLY build up and become A Thing, so all kudos to your fiance for being willing to work on it now. If I can be super-directive, I think the right compromise is: you have to not let it become A Thing, he has to seriously seriously work on it. Good luck!
posted by put another sock in it at 11:09 AM on January 21, 2013

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