Tone of voice can communicate volumes, or completely confuse. For example, today I was cycling home from a work meeting. I am waiting at the light on K Street. I look across the street and a car has pulled into the right lane facing me. He plans to turn as though he is on a one way street, although it is two-way. I am very worried someone will turn left off of 15th Street and into him. I am grimacing every time a car on 15th approaches the intersection. I cannot tell if the person realizes what they are doing wrong.
The light changes at last and I wait for the car going the wrong way to turn. although since I am going straight I technically have the right of way, there is literally nowhere to safely ride. The car in the correct lane of oncoming traffic rolls down their window. I slow to make sure they are not also turning. The driver yells at me, “Thanks for obeying the traffic laws.”
Now, just looking at the surface events I would accept the compliment and realize that the other driver’s behavior stressed him out too. Except the driver’s tone had the opposite impact. First he’s shouting. Also he sounds snide, almost drippy sarcastic. I have to think through the situation and assure myself that I was abiding by traffic laws.
If the driver intended to praise me, his tone undercut his intentions. This happens to me a lot more often than I would like. I can tell that the way a comment landed that it did not have the desired intention. Most often it is because the tone did not match my message, thus taking on a completely different meaning. The best I can do is to quickly repair with an explanation and an apology or clarification.
In my example, it is literally a “drive-by’ comment. I will never see this person again. I will never know for sure what the driver’s intentions were. I can only shake off the stress and remind myself to be impeccable with my words, including my tone.