The reader sets the tone, not the writer

Shooting this off from somewhere else. Here is an exchange between myself and @Grrr. Anything truncated is for the sake of editorial brevity, not an attempt to remove context.

ETA: I see it doesn’t add speakers. Grrr is the first writer here.

I’d like to start by again requesting a cite from Grr, or at least a name for this style of management? I tried googling but could find nothing specific in the massive pile of “workplace sensitivity suggestion” blogs and sites, and I suspect there’s some nuance getting lost in translation here.

So. The assertion is this: in writing which is not literature, the reader sets the tone. I posited that this was perhaps a useful tool but should not be a default assumption. It seems to me that defaulting to “the reader sets the tone” is a recipe for victim-blaming.

The question for debate is: in written communication between two or more individuals, who - by default - is responsible for the tone of the writing? The writer or the reader?

If I make a female coworker uncomfortable with an email telling her that we’re gonna check out some breastaurants after work and she’s welcome to come along, is it her fault for interpreting a negative tone? Or should management tell me to knock that shit off and be more thoughtful with my language in the future? Who is primarily responsible for the tone of a piece of written communication?

Ok, let’s take this at face value for the moment. I will go out on a limb and say that these councilors and the HR rep hosting a class on sensitivity did not mean:

What workplace class on sensitivity says that offense is the offendee’s problem, the Weinstein Company?

Clearly Grrr misinterpreted the concept, which is that, as the author of an email/text/post, you are not fully in control of the tone, so you need to be extra careful of your phrasing, because you can offend without meaning to.

This makes sense. @Grrr’s original comment didn’t make any sense to me (and it reminded me of Homer Simpson’s claim that “It takes two to lie: one to lie, and one to listen”), but this strikes me as a reasonable interpretation.

Yes, that’s the only reasonable interpretation. Taking it on faith that “the reader sets the tone” is a phrase he heard a professional use, what they meant was “the tone is what the reader says it is,” meaning you don’t get to just say you meant it one way, if the reader took it the other.

I’ve heard it more often expressed in terms of intent and impact; i.e. it doesn’t matter if the intent wasn’t to be hurtful or insensitive, if that was the effect it had on another person. Either way, ironically enough, the speaker’s intent was almost certainly the opposite of what he took from it.

I feel like you’re poisoning the well here. You’re bring a sexual element into an Email at work with a coworker. Of course that’s just all kinds of wrong. That’s not about tone. That’s about subject. Which is inappropriate at work.

Yes, that would be the HR interpretation. However, that doesn’t negate the reader’s “responsibility” either. But I’m not sure if “responsibility” is the correct word here. From a counselor’s point of view, it’s more: You’re putting a negative tone to this ask yourself why.

This is not the link that @Johnny_Bravo requested from me, but I think it underscores exactly what we’re talking about here. Gen Z doesn’t like the thumbs up Emoji because it comes across as passive aggressive.

So yeah, this would be where my councilor would step in and say: “Why are you putting a negative tone to it”?

I have heard this theory that the reader sets the tone in terms of implicit bias. I did the same thing with k9bfriended what? 24 hours ago? They wrote something and because of my experiences with that particular incident I read it as attacking which upon rereading I realized it completely was not and what they said was completely innocuous. Yes, I set the tone (unfairly) in that post.

I also think this is about people thinking that other people think the way they do. I write A and I assume you’ll think of it the same way I do. However, when you read A, you assume I was thinking the way you do when I wrote it.

Better yet: avoid any positive words, phrases, or emojis, because they can come across as sarcastic.

My 2¢:

Whoever initiates the communication sets the tone. With written communication, that person will necessarily be the writer. It must be so because communication is asynchronous and tone is present from the moment of composition.

Note that the participants frequently switch roles (between reader and writer) during a conversation. The tone of a conversation can be modified by the reader with the next communication.

Tone is one of the things communicated, and therefore is subject to miscommunication. Examples include mistyping on the part of the writer, misreading on the part of the reader, and tampering of the message in transit. Tone is defined in relation to the author, therefore in all such cases the reader perceives the wrong tone. This is not to be confused with unintentionally hostile tones. In Clint Eastwood’s 2018 film The Mule, the main character successfully communicates tone when he says “you Negro folks”, as that language accurately conveys the character’s dated outlook on race relations.

ETA: Responsibility is a slightly different question. The writer is responsible for proper composition and for avoiding hostile tones (even unintentionally), within reason. The reader is responsible for reading comprehension. It could be that a third party is responsible for problems with the message in transit.

The writer may in some situations even be expected to guard against perceived tone, for example the word “niggardly”.


I don’t think it’s that or just that – I think it’s more the curtness. I’ve heard people here complain about “k” as a response instead of “ok” and we’re not Gen Z people here, for the most part. Hell, I got a little annoyed by the thumbs-up emoji in response to a text instead of a written reply the first few times I came across it, and I’m firmly Gen X. I understand the complaint (or whatever you want to call it) against that emoji in certain contexts. I will also agree with the Gen Zs (at least in that article) that I hate the “okay hand.”

Since the writer has no control over how any of thousands or millions of people will interpret their writing it can only be that the writer sets the tone.