Relationships 101: Your Tone & Manner Matter as Much as Your Message

To Pajamas Media Advice:

Reading your columns, it sounds like you have an opinion on EVERYTHING and ADVICE for EVERYONE.  So what’s your opinion on THIS and YOUR ADVICE for ME?


I said SOMETHING to a friend when we were together last March and EVER SINCE she hasn’t seen, emailed, or spoken to me ONCE.  I don’t have a CLUE what I said that was so WRONG. I NEVER INTENDED TO HURT HER FEELINGS.

I’ve emailed her NUMEROUS TIMES to ask WHAT I SAID and she WON’T REPLY.  I’m a 68-year-old WOMAN without ANY close friends. What DO YOU HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THIS WITH ALL YOUR OPINIONS AND ADVICE?

Clueless in Cleveland

Dear Clueless,

I’m sorry you’ve apparently lost a friend, and even sorrier that you believe you have no others.

I don’t think this friendship can be saved. By saying that you didn’t intend any harm, it sounds as if you think you deserve a pass.

The problem is that unintentional acts can be just as hurtful as intentional ones. Crimes of omission can cause the same injury as those of commission.

Assuming the friendship that ended in March is irretrievable, the best advice I can offer is to suggest some lessons you could learn from this experience to apply in the future.

For starters, has anyone ever mentioned to you that using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS in an email is considered the written equivalent of yelling?  Your habit of doing so might alone account for the waning of that friendship, irrespective of what you said in person last March.

The manner in which we speak or write is as important as the content of our messages.

I’d be loath to correspond or converse with anyone who’s unable to keep his or her vocal volume in check. No one wants to receive messages, either spoken or in writing, in the form of a yell.


As a means of communication under non-emergency circumstances, screaming is egregiously annoying, unpleasant, obnoxious, and rude.

Indeed, except for the fact that it’s my job to respond to emails for advice, I myself might not have replied to an email as replete with yelling, as well as with hostility, as yours was to me.

I agree with your inference that if your former friend wanted to have anything more to do with you, she would have given you chapter and verse of what you said to hurt or offend her.

There are usually three main reasons that people refrain from responding to emails such as the ones you wrote asking your former friend what you said that offended her.

The first is that many people believe that if the other person is truly incapable of fathoming what he or she did or said that was hurtful, there’s no point in trying to spell it out.


Because they feel that if they’re dealing with someone with so little self-awareness that the person is unable to analyze what took place, there is no point in continuing a relationship with someone who’s incapable of the self-awareness and capacity for introspection that undergird enjoyable and mutually supportive interpersonal relationships, also known as friendships.

The second is that if your former friend were to write to you in detail about your offense, she could well anticipate that she’d have to subject herself to hearing your defense of your hurtful statement, which she doesn’t wish to hear. I seriously doubt that she wants to get into an argument with you about what you said or how you said it.


The third is that she simply doesn’t want to continue the relationship.  She doesn’t want an apology.  She wants an end.

The problem might have been something you said, the way that you said it, or both.

How one speaks to others – tone of voice, facial expressions, a haughtily-raised eyebrow, dismissive hand gestures, the look in one’s eyes – communicates at least as much as specific words, phrases, or sentences.

There’s a wide spectrum in people’s ability to remember conversations. It appears that you said something your ex-friend found inexcusably hostile, cruel, mean, dismissive, or ungracious. Even if your precise words weren’t the problem, then your manner may have been. Whichever it was, it appearently caused substantial distress.

Unless you’re able to reconstruct what she said to you and what you said to her, I doubt you’ll ever learn what you said that put an end to the relationship.

Even if you were able to reproduce the exchange verbatim, however, you may be unable to see or hear yourself as others do. The fact that you say you have no other close friends may mean that it’s possible you say unkind things without being aware of doing so; or that even if your verbal messages aren’t unkind, whatever you say or write is done in such a manner that many of your potential friends may take offense despite your having intended none.

You write that you said “something” in March, but you also called yourself  “clueless” about what it was.  This suggests that you may not pay particularly close attention to the words that come out of your mouth, and/or that you lack sufficiently sensitive antennae to understand how your utterances affect others during conversations and in emails.


That’s why it’s important to look at the face of the person with whom you’re speaking — so you’ll be able to detect changes in expressions or body language that could give you a contemporaneous indication that you’ve said something offensive or hurtful. If you watch the other person’s face while you talk, you can address a problem immediately by saying something like, “You suddenly looked distressed just now. Did I accidentally say something that troubled you?”

If you were gazing out the window, you’d  have missed the fleeting expression that could have led you to explore the problem as soon as it arose. Looking anywhere but directly at your friend’s face could have resulted in your not learning the effect of your words, your tone, or your gestures.  The more mature one is, the more quickly one is able to regain one’s composure, so if you missed your friend’s original fleeting expression of pain or distress, in even a few seconds later she might well have recovered from her momentary reaction and you would have missed the nanosecond in which she displayed her true emotion.

If you feel your abilities to read facial expressions are not as acute as they might be, there are many web sites that can help you improve, such as this, this, and this.

People vary on a spectrum from hypersensitivity to the feelings of others to comparative insensitivity, as well as in their capacities to remember conversations. It’s possible that your former friend is hypersensitive and it’s also possible that you may have relatively little awareness of the impact you make through your words, facial expressions, gestures, and/or your tone of voice.


The combination of a hypersensitive person with one who is relatively unaware of how he or she affects others is not conducive to friendship, I regret to say.

As you go forward, try to monitor what you say to people more closely, in an effort to prevent another episode such as this, and also try to focus on the other person’s face so you’ll know the moment it happens that you’ve caused pain or injury.

Further, in your email correspondence, I urge you to forego the use of all capital letters. If you wish to emphasize a point, italics do that well, without conveying the sense that you’re so frustrated or exasperated with your correspondent that you feel the need to yell to get your points across.

You may find this a helpful guide:

In the future, when conversing with potential new friends, try being gentler. Listen to your own words and your tone of voice, and watch their effect on the other person. If you see signs of distress, try to address the cause immediately.

It’s never too late to learn new skills, including social skills. I wish you all the best.

—Belladonna Rogers

Do you have questions?  Belladonna Rogers has answers.  Send your questions or comments about politics, personal or cultural matters, or anything else that’s on your mind, and Belladonna will answer as many as possible.  The names, geographic locations and email addresses of all advice-seekers are confidential and will remain undisclosed to protect the identity of the questioner.  Send your questions or comments to: [email protected]



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