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February 23rd, 2021


“Well, I didn’t mean it that way.”  So long as a person breathes a person is guilty of having uttered this statement.  And yet, it’s a strange one.  Aside from valid issue of multiple interpretations and the slippery way clear-seeming sentences can be sensical in a different way from a different perspective, much misinterpretation is often caused by intonation.  Namely, the intonation doesn’t match the intention and therefore flavors the sentence with an unintended delivery.


This harks of an improve exercise.  Simply think of all the different intonations that can be imparted to a word as simple as “hey”.  This single word can be used to alert someone of danger when said loudly, quickly and clearly, and perhaps with a rising volume.  It can be said slowly, in a way that hopefully invites more conversation, or suspicion depending on the timbre of voice.  It’s further improv exercise of humorous exercise to try and have an entire conversation using just a single word in different intonations, like a Pokemon.


The problem is further framed by the perennial axiom: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.


The strange thing is that the one of the main avenues for how we say something can be so far divorced from what we are trying to say, or simply: our intonation doesn’t always match our intention.  I didn’t mean it that way.  Often this is said because a sentence comes out while the tongue is still hot with an emotion.  We warp our own meaning without. Meaning to. 


The most disconcerting possibility is that we could simply be operating on a habit of intonation.  For example, when someone raises their voice, chances are very high their now disgruntled companion in dialogue will also raise their voice, and so then the two watched each other up to a pitch.  And why?  Do we except that this is some hardwired default in the human system?  Or is there even a possibility that it’s just a habit of behavior, mapped onto speech and intonation?


The unfortunate news is that in order to fix a bad habit, the creation of a new good habit is needed to paint it over, and habits are not the easiest download for the mind.


One habit that covers this ground without explicitly designed to is a practice of mindfulness.  With enough time spent trying to be mindful, that mindful perspective starts to become a habit, and it eventually pops up during one of these instances when a sentence has flown out with the wrong intonation attached to it.  In a moment of mindfulness, this suddenly seems curious in a bizarre way, as though writing with a black pen for a number of pages and then suddenly seeing the ink turn pink.  Mindfulness allows a chance to pause and simply think for a moment: what was that?  At the very least it’s just noticing an inconsistency - one that undermines our aims in such moments.  And with that explicit realization, it can be caught preemptively the next time and then our chances of communicating a bit better, go up.

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Podcast Ep. 1045: Habits of Intonation

Tinkered Thinking

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