Yes, my dear. You said ‘fine.’ But your tone said something else entirely.
Fine. This seeming innocuous word, somewhere between not-so-great and good on the “How ya doin’?” scale, really takes a beating in our modern jargon. Add a dramatic, almost-teen into the mix and “fine” is rarely fine.
Mom (in reasonable tone of voice): “Honey, you need to take your clean laundry upstairs before you walk into town.”
Daughter (rolling eyes and stomping feet): “Fine.”
Mom (curiously): “Honey, how was your day?”
Daughter (lip trembling, tears welling): “Fine?”
Mom (firmly): “Honey, that outfit is simply not appropriate. You need to go upstairs and try again.”
Daughter (seething with outrage that her mother is such an incredible fashion fool): “Fine!”
This little word, it turns out, has a big lesson to teach us. It’s not always what we say. It’s how we say it.
Tone. Body language. Facial expressions. These are as powerful communication tools as words. In fact, you could say that these often convey our intention more clearly than our words do. How many times have I confronted my daughter, only to have her retort, “What?! I said ‘FINE.’” Yes, my dear. You said ‘fine.’ But your tone said something else entirely.
It’s easy to point a finger at the adolescents of the world when talking about tone, but if we’re going to be really honest with each other, we all do it. Just the other day, my husband asked if I’d like him to carry the hamper downstairs for me. I responded, “Yes, thank you.” Seeing those three little words typed out neat-as-can-be makes my response look polite. That morning, however, I was feeling put upon. I’d exercised and done what felt like 8 million household tasks while he snoozed away. Despite my virtuous (and busy) early morning behavior, I was still facing the dreaded task of laundry. For no rational reason at all, I hated that he was still in bed. I hated that he hadn’t fed the dog, made breakfast for the kids, or straightened up the swath of destruction left over from last night’s homework. I hated that I had to do the laundry and not him. And all of those feelings were clear as a bell in my response, “Yes, thank you.” Can you hear my tone a little more clearly now?
Tone plays a role on our yoga mats as well. Tone here does not involve our voices. Tone is the energy, the attitude, and the state of mind that we bring with us to our practice. As a teacher, I get to witness my students’ tone when I watch them move, but with a little awareness (that’s really all it takes), I witness my own “tone” manifest on my mat more regularly than I’d like to admit.
If I’m angry about something, I can feel myself blast through the postures. Each movement screeches to a stop, rather than softly ending with my breath. If I’m feeling lazy, I can get placid in my stretches. Perhaps, rather than actively pressing my heels toward the floor in downward facing dog, I’m just hanging out. Over the years, I’ve caught myself feeling proud (over-working in postures to show a teacher what I can do); fearful (ditching out of postures that challenge me); excited (moving and breathing through the series too quickly); and lackadaisical (mind wandering, intensity varying, generally not all there). I can be doing exactly the same series of postures (asana) that I was doing the day before, but it feels (it is!) entirely different. Turns out, it’s not what we do, but how we do it.
On our mats as in our conversations our tone reveals our intentions, feelings and state of mind quite clearly. Yoga almost automatically helps bring our feelings back into balance (to expel feelings of anger, to face fears, to burn off excited energy). That’s one reason so many people get hooked! But there is a life skill to learn here as well. When we’re clear about how we’re feeling, we’re better able to set aside the baggage of whatever “tone” we’ve dragged with us onto our mats. This is important work. Our intentions and feelings can completely change the nature of our yoga practice the same way that they can completely change the nature of our verbal responses. The difference is that, on our mats “tone” affects only us. Off our mats, for better or worse, tone affects the people around us.
Which brings me back to my family. While it would clearly have required using more words than one (an apparently exhausting feat for a girl her age), had my daughter tried to convey even the tip of her feelings with words rather than tone, my response may have been more in line with what she wanted. Or, if she just wanted to be left alone with her feelings, all she had to do was skip the tone entirely. And that is exactly what I should have done when my husband innocently offered to lug the laundry downstairs for me. Without changing a word, my tone-free “Yes, thank you” could have started his day off on a much nicer note. And that would have been more than fine – it would have been good.
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