October 25, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Tone Is Hard to Grasp Online. Can Tone Indicators Help?’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “Tone Is Hard to Grasp Online. Can Tone Indicators Help?” by Ezra Marcus with videos by Shane O’Neill

We all struggle to communicate online — sometimes with funny consequences, and at other times hurtful ones. “In a text-only environment, how can we ever be certain other people understand what we mean when we post online? Enter tone indicators,” writes Ezra Marcus.

In this lesson, you will explore the challenges of communication in a digital age and how an emerging linguistic trend might help us all. In a Going Further activity, you will create your own tone indicator videos to help others avoid miscommunication.

How often do you experience misunderstandings over a text, email, chat or other digital form of communication?

Someone posted on your Instagram “that’s SO cool” and you thought they were being sarcastic. You texted someone “yeh, sure” and they thought you were being serious when you were joking.

Take a few minutes to write about a memorable miscommunication you had in a text or online. What was written, by whom, and how was it misunderstood? What was the source of the confusion? A typo? Confusing grammar? A misinterpretation of meaning, subtext or tone? What were the consequences of the mix-up? Embarrassment? Hurt feelings? Laughs?

If you are in a classroom setting, share your experiences and make a list of common problems you face in online communication.

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. Why is written language “an imperfect method for the messy, complex business of communication” according to the author, Ezra Marcus? Why is it less effective than face-to-face communication?

2. What are tone indicators, in your own words, for someone who has never heard of or used them? How do they address the kinds of communication challenges you identified in the warm-up activity?

3. What does it mean to be “neurodivergent”? Why are tone indicators popular with people who are neurodivergent, according to the article?

4. Why are some people opposed to the use or overuse of tone indicators? Do you find those arguments persuasive?

5. Mr. Marcus writes that the history of tone indication is much older than the internet. Which example from the article do you find most fascinating or instructive? How did the smiley face emoticon “:-)” come into being? What does that story tell us about the evolution of communication?

6. What is your reaction to the article? Do you think tone indicators would have prevented the miscommunication you described in the warm-up activity? Which tone indicators do you think are most helpful? Which are less so? Do you think you will use them in the future?

7. The author notes that many past efforts to invent punctuation like the upside-down exclamation mark to indicate sarcasm and irony failed to catch on. Do you think tone indicators will catch on? Do you think they will make the internet a better place?

Option 1: Share Your Thoughts

Choose one or more of the following writing prompts:

  • Communication: What method of communication for speaking or writing do you prefer — by phone, text, video call or face-to-face? How is communicating in-person different from having digital conversations? What are the advantages and drawbacks of each?

  • Miscommunication: How big a problem is miscommunication for you? How often do you find yourself being misunderstood or confused as to another person’s intent? What strategies have you used to better ensure clear communication? How successful have they been?

  • Tone Indicators: One Times reader, Chris from San Francisco, commented:

Tone indicators are a pretense claiming to be a fact.

They pretend that perfect clarity is possible when it never has been and never will be. In-person dialogue with an intimate loved one requires clarifying questions if you’re really paying attention, and even talking to ourselves or journaling usually requires a few iterations to get at what’s under the surface. We express to discover what we mean, not pre-determine it. Exploring meaning is what connects and nourishes, not clipped declarations of intent.

Instead of tone indicators, I’d suggest we ensure the reader feels free to ask for clarification in a way that deepens connection, not abbreviates it.

Do you agree? Do you believe that tone indicators abbreviate connection and true intimacy? Or do you find them helpful to avoid misunderstanding and a good step for inclusiveness?

Option 2: Create Your Own Tone Indicator Videos

Create your own tone videos using the ones featured in the article as an inspiration and guide.

Your videos can illustrate existing tone indicators or you can create your own new ones — drawing from the list of common communication problems you created in the warm-up activity.

Each video should have the same words or phrase, but use a different tone and delivery along with the corresponding indicator or symbol.

When you are finished, share your videos with the class and create an anthology of tone indicators as a whole group.

About Lesson of the Day

Find all our Lessons of the Day in this column.
Teachers, watch our on-demand webinar to learn how to use this feature in your classroom.

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