Are we tone-deaf in the text we produce?

Posted on August 11, 2016

 

Body language experts will often tell you that there’s a lot more to what you say than the words you use. In an often cited 1971 study, Iranian/Armenian psychologist Albert Mehrabian concluded that words themselves only account for 7% of a communicated message, with tone of voice and body language being much weightier. Analysts point out that this figure is often misinterpreted, and that Mehrabian himself acknowledged that this isn’t to say that the words we use are of minimal importance, but it does give an eye-opening indication of how reliant our spoken word is on the way we deliver it.

When communicating in written form though, as most of us do every day through the likes of emails, texts and social media posts, we are almost entirely reliant on words. That means that all the other factors that affect spoken communication, like tone, pitch, speed, facial expressions and gestures, go out of the window. As cool as emojis are, it leaves a big gap for them to fill and there are times when no number of yellow smiley faces can quite convey the message we want them to.

How many times have you sent an email or text and then immediately worried about whether you sounded rude, negative, arrogant or something else that you didn’t intend? How many times have you received one and taken it in the wrong way?

In the last couple of months, a new online tool has been released called Tone Analyzer, which runs through the textual content of a message and gives you feedback on how it might be perceived, and the emotions that may have been behind it. Broken down into three sections (Emotion, Language Style and Social Tendencies), it could be used either to analyse a piece of text before sending or publishing it, or to get a reading on the emotions behind an email or message you may have received.

This could be a very useful service for businesses who want to test the tone of the writing they have produced or received, but I thought it might be interesting to take a recent tweet from some well-known politicians and put them through Tone Analyzer, seeing what the tool makes of their written communication.

Theresa May

The new PM is not exactly an avid tweeter, but isn’t one to mince her words. However, in a scale with 0 as the lowest and 1 as the highest, Tone Analyzer detected a considerable amount of fear (0.69) behind her words. It also notes strong levels of extraversion (0.82) that were perhaps influenced by her use of the word ‘we’, and a high emotional range (0.73)

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour leader Corbyn is often accused of a bit of a lack of charisma, so perhaps it’s no surprise that his tweet didn’t score highly in any of the Emotion categories, with sadness being his highest at 0.32. Even his fiercest critics usually concede that he’s a likable, principled and honest man though, which might explain the high agreeableness (0.90) and conscientiousness (0.76) ratings behind this tweet.

Hilary Clinton

Democrat nominee and presidential hopeful Clinton is a tentative (0.98) tweeter, says the tool, and her words show hints of sadness (0.5) and fear (0.43). With a score of 0.73, it sees her as on open communicator though.

Donald Trump

Trump is disgusted (0.63), says Tone Analyzer, but like his rival Clinton, he’s tentative too (0.94). The tool doesn’t think what he’s saying is very open (0.13), conscientious (0.27) or agreeable (0.40) though, which says a lot.

Just to show that I’m not picking on politicians, I put the first 400 words of this very article through the Tone Analyzer, and apparently I’m brimming with anger (0.96) and disgust (0.81), which isn’t quite what I was going for! The 0.84 analytical score is a bit more encouraging though.

It’s not exactly hardcore psychology, but it’s certainly an interesting snapshot of the tone behind the text we type.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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