When conducting training sessions on subjects such as presentation skills or business communication here in Vietnam, one of the most difficult concepts for students to grasp is that of tone of voice. Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a tonal language, and tonal languages allow the speaker little flexibility when it comes to varying their tone or pitch, thus limiting their expressiveness.

Therefore, non-native English speakers not only have to battle with learning a whole new grammar and vocabulary, they also have to get the hang of the way we use tone to introduce thousands of subtle nuances of meaning. A native English speaker can hear someone’s tone of voice and instantly identify their mood and their relationship with the person they’re speaking to, but non-native speakers a) struggle to read such signals, and b) struggle to give out the right signals themselves.

In his book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell relates an interesting experiment that was conducted recently to find out why some US doctors are sued for malpractice more often than others. The researcher, Wendy Levinson, recorded hundreds of conversations between doctors and their patients, and soon found that she was able to predict which doctors were more likely to be sued.

The difference was not in what they were saying, nor in their diagnostic skill; it all came down to tone of voice. A psychologist called Nalini Ambady took the experiment one step further, taking ten-second extracts of the conversations and then removing the high-frequency sounds that allow us to distinguish individual words. All that was left was the sound of the voices. And Ambady was still able to predict which doctors were most likely to be sued with a similar degree of accuracy!

So tone of voice would seem to play a dominant role in how others perceive us – as Gladwell says:

“In the end it comes down to a matter of respect, and the simplest way that respect is communicated is through tone of voice.”

Of course, tone can also come through in our writing – compare the following two email extracts:

I’d like to see your report as soon as possible.

I’d like to see your report AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

Of course, the first one sounds a lot more polite – using caps in an email comes across as shouting. One of the disadvantages of email is that, unlike typing a letter, sending an email is almost as quick as speaking, so if we’re in a bad mood that mood is more likely to come across in our message.

What this means for those of us working in different cultures is that firstly we have to be more careful with the way we say and write things, as our audience are more likely to misunderstand us; and secondly, we have to make allowances for the way others speak or write to us, as whilst they might sound aggressive or abrupt, they may not mean to.