Have you ever texted your friend to share exciting news and been disappointed when they responded with a lackluster “Oh, cool.”? Or maybe you’ve written to your bank’s customer service department about a severe mistake on your credit card statement and felt irritated when you received an overly chipper message in return.
In each of these scenarios, the tone of the responses you received didn’t effectively tone match. Tone matching is the practice of adjusting your tone when responding to someone to acknowledge their feelings and show that you’re here to help. It’s a tactic often employed by people like customer service representatives and healthcare professionals.
Tone matching is an excellent way to demonstrate empathy and show people that you care. It can not only positively shape how someone feels about you, but also—if you’re writing in a professional context—how they feel about your company or organization overall. That’s powerful!
After all, tone conveys attitude and can leave a strong emotional impression. When tone matching, start by considering the other person’s emotional state and expectations.
Identifying Emotion and Tone in Writing
In person, you can usually rely on visual cues like body language and gestures to get a sense of how someone might be feeling. Similarly, you can pay attention to the pitch of someone’s voice or words they emphasize when speaking on the phone. But in writing, it can sometimes be harder to identify someone’s emotional state—especially when you don’t have much information.
Familiarizing yourself with how words can trigger specific emotions and paying close attention to indicators like punctuation and subtle differences in word choice can help. Don’t forget to take cultural norms into account either, since they can significantly influence how tone is perceived.
Once you have a sense of what someone’s feeling, it’s time to tone match and develop an appropriate response based on the context of the conversation. Although there’s positive intent behind the frequently-cited phrase “treat others the way you’d like to be treated,” it isn’t actually the most empathetic practice. After all, not everyone will react to something the same way you would!
Instead, try to use the concrete clues left in someone’s message—like the specific word choice, punctuation, or any emoji used—to guide you as much as possible. To the best of your ability, put the other person at the forefront and think of how you could best meet their needs. Depending on the situation, you may also need to read between the lines of a message. Sometimes what’s left unsaid can be even more important.
Let’s dive into some examples of tone matching from Grammarly’s own Twitter account.
Tone Matching vs. Tone Mirroring
Keep in mind that tone matching doesn’t always mean mirroring someone’s tone exactly. For example, it’s usually best to avoid matching anger with anger, frustration with frustration, and worry with worry. In these cases, responding in kind can often make the situation worse and lead to negative experiences.
Hi, Rachel. Thanks for reaching out and sorry to hear things don't seem to be working properly. Could you please let us know your email address through a DM? We would like to connect you with our support team, who can help investigate this issue.
— Grammarly (@Grammarly) April 12, 2019
In the situation above, someone was concerned about a serious issue. One clue that helps indicate the underlying emotion here is the emoji used, which suggests dismay.
In response, we’d want to communicate the next steps to address this issue as well as reassure this person to show that we take the issue seriously. That’s why a somewhat formal tone feels more appropriate than an extremely positive or casual one, which could come off as flippant.
Reading Between The Lines
In many situations, however, tone mirroring can be perfectly appropriate and even appreciated.
We didn't mean to bread-shame you, Lianne. 😂 Keep doing what you want, especially when it comes to bread! pic.twitter.com/VDwe4hNPra
— Grammarly (@Grammarly) March 23, 2019
At first glance, the situation above could seem delicate—after all, this is a complaint. But reading the message more closely suggests this person doesn’t actually take this situation too seriously. The word choice appears more neutral than angry, and the gif conveys cheekiness rather than frustration.
Tone matching here by mirroring the playfulness of the original message creates a fun opportunity to connect on a more informal level and acknowledge feedback in a lighthearted and positive way.
Some people may find that they’re naturals when it comes to tone matching and can do it without even thinking, while others may have a harder time. The good news is that tone matching is a skill that can be developed and honed! So if you do find it initially difficult, don’t worry. With practice, you might be surprised at how quickly you can improve the quality of your interactions with others.