I have a friend who owns an organic farm. One year, I worked for her in exchange for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. Whenever I would complete a task, my friend would always remember to say, “Thank you.”
And whenever she said, “Thank you,” she would raise her tone of voice slightly at the end of the phrase, making it sound almost like a question. It gave you the impression that she couldn’t believe that you were being so kind as to help her out. It made you feel appreciated. I took to saying, “Thank you,” that way, myself.
I hadn’t really consciously thought about all of this until I was in a grocery store recently and I heard a checker say, “Thank you,” in that same tone of voice. It immediately jolted me out of my routine and made me aware that someone was expressing gratitude: What tremendous power in the human voice, and the way that we choose to use it!
Tone of voice can convey lots of things. When I was in college, I joined a collective that published an annual literary review. The editor of the publication referred to poems as “poo-ims” and when she read them, she ended with several words at the end of each line on the same tone, which was slightly higher than that of the rest of the line. It was vaguely similar to the questioning tone that my friend used in saying, “Thank you,” but rather than making you feel appreciated, this tone kind of left you hanging.
I think it was intended to create suspense in the reading of poetry, but the overall effect was monotonous (literally mono-tone-ous) and conveyed a hip sense of boredom with all of the deep emotional truths that were being expressed in the writing.
I have heard published poets read in this tone of voice, but it sounds like an act to me, as if they are trying to take on the persona of the poet, rather than expressing who they really are. The most accomplished poets always seem to use a broader range of tonality in their reading, to better evoke the varieties of experience that they are trying to convey.
Teenagers also sometimes take on a contrived tone of voice that conveys sarcasm or boredom. Zoe Chace, of NPR’s Planet Money team has this affectation in her reporting. It’s distracting to me, because she is an excellent radio producer, but her tone of voice almost makes it sound as if she’s mocking whatever topic she’s covering.
People tell me that I have a good radio voice. It’s hard for me to know, for sure (since we don’t actually hear our own voice as others hear it). But I wonder if my ability to effectively “do radio” might not be connected with my sensitivity to tone of voice and all that it conveys. I wonder if we can consciously learn to cultivate and emphasize the positive tones, and if so, what affect that would have on our lives and relationships.