What is tone policing?

What is tone policing?


Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

This article on “What is tone policing and how do you manage it within your online community?” is the most serious post I’ve written on community building so far and is published on 1/15/2022. If this post is edited, I commit to calling out the edits explicitly and/or releasing new versions of this post in the future.

Why talk about tone policing?

As someone who participates in a lot of communities, both online and offline, I’ve become really interested in power dynamics.

Even if your community is member-owned/decentralized/transparent/ all those things, there is always an underlying power structure.


Tone policing — which I’ll define more in a min — is something that’s ingrained into anyone who holds power in mainstream society. This means we have to actively work against it if we want it to change.

When we talk about community moderation, we often ask questions about how to filter for spam bots, when to draw the line when someone violates community guidelines, or how to hold others accountable for malicious content.

We don’t talk enough about tone policing, which means that it’s largely ignored in the online community building space.

If you believe in creating an inclusive community and you’re not taking steps against tone policing, your community will not be inclusive.

As Del Johnson says above, we’ve gotta talk about tone. Talking about it is the first step in distinguishing tone from impact. It’s safe for me to bet that everyone reading this wants to create an impact. You want to create belonging. You want your digital platform to be a place where people can genuinely connect.

In the rest of this article, I’ll explain:

  1. what is tone policing
  2. who is most responsible for curbing tone policing in the context of online communities
  3. resources that are helping me navigate power dynamics as a community steward (and fellow human)

This article is not intended to help you navigate when you should and shouldn’t step in when you think someone is being rude or taking an inappropriate tone. That’s too context specific, and requires you to map out your own community’s power dynamics and expectations. Also, please note that I’m not an expert on this subject. I’m simply someone who’s trying to start the conversation.

Please @ me on Twitter if you have any input — I’m here to learn with you.

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What is tone policing?

In her book So You Want to Talk About Race (205-207), Ijeoma Oluo offers the following definition. Out of all the definitions I’ve read (including Wikipedia’s, which is a good anchor), I find her description the clearest.

Tone policing is when someone (usually the privileged person) in a conversation or situation about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the way it is being discussed. Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person... Most damagingly, tone policing places prerequisites on being heard and being helped... To refuse to listen to someone else’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them in the situation.

I’m hesitant to co-opt the language of oppression and social justice to online communities. If you have a better word for the same concept that doesn’t stem from the same systemic oppression, please tell me about it. In the meantime, I want to expand this to the online community context.

I’ll offer this working definition:

Tone policing is when a person of power (either in terms of societal privilege or power granted by business hierarchy) shifts the focus of the conversation from the topic being discussed to the way it is being discussed. By prioritizing the comfort of the person of power, tone policing places prerequisites on the member who is asking to be heard and be helped. Tone policing in an online community context increases the barriers to members (especially those who are disfavored by socioeconomic factors) on speaking honestly and authentically. Tone policing discourages giving feedback, making suggestions, and voicing needs.

Online communities help us do business. And we already know that certain types of people are vastly favored in the business landscape, whether we’re looking at gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ability... all the things.

When a person of power — either someone overrepresented who is also a member of the community OR someone given institutional power (i.e. the community manager; someone from the product team) chimes in to tone police, that’s a step towards dismantling all your inclusion efforts.

Some caveats before we go on

  • There is a difference between tone policing and requesting that someone isn’t a jerk
  • There are ways, and appropriate settings, to give people constructive criticism about the way they’re delivering a message
  • Setting clear boundaries to indicate what is and isn’t okay, proactively, can be one of the most effective ways to steer clear of tone policing
  • This article is reflective of a time when we’re all learning and changing. It’s written by me, a non-expert, and is meant to be a discussion piece, not a static lesson
  • We should be wary of the good vs. bad false binary. Tone is highly subjective, and making decisions around it requires a lot of context, especially about communication styles and power dynamics
  • This article is written from my POV as a first-generation immigrant woman of color + person who’s lived in America most of her life. Proceed accordingly when deciding how this applies to your culture(s)

Who needs to be thinking about tone policing in your community?

Well ideally, everyone, but the imperative is on the community management team to learn about tone policing, identify instances of tone policing from themselves or other community members, and step in when necessary.

Here’s an example of tone policing in an online community I participate in (and generally love!). Names and contexts are obscured to respect the communities I’m participating in.

  • What happened: A member of an online community platform offers blunt feedback on a new feature. Other community members step in to call this member entitled and tell him his feedback is a rant.
  • How it was addressed: A key leader in the online community platform, in a non-public comment, calls out the OP (and none of the other commentors) to express their disappointment with OP’s “dramatic and heightened tone”, multiple times.
  • How I would have addressed it: If there are no explicit guidelines on the “vibe” expected of the space, I would have focused on protecting the member(s) being attacked. In this case, the OP. If there were explicit guidelines on how to participate in this space (e.g. “We expect you to give all feedback in a way that a) identifies which feature you’re referring to and b) asks a specific question), and those guidelines were violated, I would reference that violation publicly for accountability and resolve it further in a private message.
  • (P.S. Of course, I am not the model child on how to address these situations, but my hope is to provide a thoughtful alternative to what had happened.)

  • More context: In this case, the CEO is the person of power. The OP is Black, and it’s important to understand that OP is a) not in power in a business context — they don’t control the platform and b) not in power in a societal context, as part of a group that’s systematically under-funded and discriminated against.

In this case, who needs to be thinking about tone policing? In my opinion (which, please let’s clarify again, is NOT a race scholar’s opinion and shouldn’t be worth the same as an expert’s):

  1. Executives — The key leader needs to be aware of how tone policing will lead to OP, and other members of the community who are observing this interaction, not wanting to offer feedback without filtering it first for the “right” tone.
  2. Community team — The community manager(s) must discuss and make explicit their expectations for tone, if any. They must ask — How do we currently think about tone? Why do we care about tone? When do we care about tone? What do we define as tone? How can we reduce the ambiguity in what we consider to be disrespectful, so we’re not making a subjective decision?
  3. Product team — The people working on the product should have a basic working knowledge of tone policing as a concept. They have to ask — how do we work with our community org to make product decisions? Whose feedback do we prioritize? Do we prioritize this feedback based on the actual request or based on how that request is delivered? Which types of requests does our community team surface up to our product team, and is any of this prioritization related to the tone in which these interactions happen?
  4. Support team — When we get a request from a customer/user/member that’s rude, disrespectful, or malicious, how do we draw the line? What bothers me personally vs. what’s actually unacceptable? Does our perception of tone affect whose problems are being solved first? If so, how?
  5. Other members of the community — Am I responding to people’s comments to take issue with the content of what they’re saying or their tone? Regardless of whether or not their tone bothered me, how can I focus my response on the main topic?
    • Note: this one’s tricky because I don’t think it’s viable (yet) to magically make every community member aware of this tone discussion. However, it is the community manager’s responsibility — when a member of a community tone polices another member, especially in a situation with a power difference — to step in, and actively name and explain tone policing. This can be a public or private intervention depending on the topic. E.g. if someone in the Soapbox community says “Bitcoins are stupid and horrible because they destroy the planet” and someone else says “Why are you being so mean and dramatic, please calm down”, it is my job to step in and explain to them that in our community, we focus on the issues first and foremost. I can also suggest to the first person that, in the future, we use facts instead of descriptive adjectives when sharing our opinions and add that to our community guidelines. The bottom line here is, if you’re a community manager, your job is to protect your members, not make life more comfortable. (Unless that’s what your community is about, and I’d totally love to join a Cozy Community.)

Anyone responsible for building and caring for a community needs to be thinking about tone policing. Also it’s pretty easy to watch for it once you learn about it, so your main homework is just to be aware and practice remediating it when you see it! We build courage through practice, and I believe in you to continue improving yourself as a community steward. We’ll work on this together!

Resources for further learning and practice on tone policing

  1. How to identify and stop tone policing in the workplace (Article) This is a two-minute, skimmable read that provides some basic tips on identifying tone policing and getting comfortable with emotions like anger and frustration. Recognition is the first step! Read it, reflect on it, and join me on this journey.
  2. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Book) This book is a must-read for all community builders. When we ask ourselves how to create inclusion, we can’t avoid talking about race. We have to get comfortable and courageous with these conversations — and comfort can only arrive after courage. Oluo’s chapter on tone policing comes later in the book, which helped me first understand the context of what she was explaining around race and race conversations. She brilliantly intersperses facts with her own personal experiences and has helped me become more conscious in my own role in creating racial equity. After reading this book, I’ve realized how often I myself am tempted to jump in and “correct” someone’s tone without caring/being curious about what they’re actually trying to talk about!
  3. Rising Strong by Brené Brown (Book) Rising Strong isn’t about race or any other social justice topic, necessarily. It’s about navigating emotions to build resilience and lead a wholehearted life. In this book, Brown talks about setting boundaries with integrity and generosity, and how these concepts work together to create compassionate leadership. She defines boundaries as our lists of what is and isn’t okay, and says, “Early on in my work I had discovered that the most compassionate people I interviewed also have the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries. It surprised me at the time, but now I get it. They assume that other people are doing the best they can, but they also ask for what they need and they don’t put up with a lot of crap.” Boundaries are missing from many online communities (honestly I could do a better job with this), and when you find yourself experiencing massive periods of growth, you realize how important these boundaries are. There’s no more emphasis on simply knowing what you can and can’t do as a function of your membership. The people discovering your community need to be told what’s expected of them — otherwise they show up to the party not knowing the dress code! Also, Brown talks about how the human mind is rewarded for making up stories even when we have incomplete information. This explains why people can assume bad intents or assume others’ tones, when perhaps this wasn’t what was actually going on. Every leader and community builder should read this book.
  4. The Wake Up by Michelle Kim (Book) This is one of my top reads from 2022. In the context of our tone policing discussion, the parts of The Wake Up that are most valuable is when Michelle (is it okay if I refer to her by her first name since we’ve interacted on Twitter?) talks about the importance of context. Here are two types of questions she guides us to ask about power to better identify power dynamics in any given situation:
    1. Who has or has had power?
    2. How is the power being used? Examine how power is being used and whether it’s power over (coercive) or power with (coactive). Is someone or an entity using or abusing power to diminish, harm, or exploit those with less power? Or is this a situation where a marginalized person or community is trying to reclaim power as a way to resist abuse?
    3. These questions — and her assertion that safety is different from comfort — are crucial to grapple with if we hope to build safe, inclusive communities. We are called to empower our members, in the true sense of the word. Most importantly, we are called to keep them safe. That’s the promise we make as we welcome someone into a community. It’s necessary that our members know that we are here for them; that we hear them. And we can’t do this if we fixate on tone over impact.

Thank you for coming with me on this journey. This article will always be open for discussion. Here are my working boundaries if you want to chat about this article. You can reach me online (I’m @niviachanta), email me, and/or book some time on my calendar.

Before reaching out, are these things true?

  1. We both agree on the value of inclusion. If we disagree on this, it’s unnecessary to have a conversation about this post.
  2. We will engage with each other in good faith about the content of this article.
  3. We both commit to being open-minded, curious, and willing to transform ourselves by discussing this topic.

Please chime in with thoughts, resources, and/or feedback. I’m grateful to be able to contribute to our evolving digital landscape ⚡

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