The Benefits of Being Tone Deaf


90 percent tone of voice

In fourth grade they gave me a cello because I was the tallest girl in my class. In fifth grade they look it back because I was hopelessly tone deaf. Which is ironic, because over the years, my tone has gotten me into a lot of trouble.

For years, my husband accused me of having an angry tone to my voice. This was often in seemingly innocent sentences such as “I’ll be right down.” I would argue that it was his perception, that there was no angry tone. Most of the time I believed this, but sometimes I knew in my heart he was right. I don’t know if  I actually sounded angry, but I was often annoyed when he called me away from something I was doing, so it’s possible my voice did reflect an angry tone. I argued that my words were neutral; he argued that my tone was not.  In our house, we didn’t use angry tones when we argued. Angry tones were why we argued.

I think everyone has at times wished they had a tape recorder they could replay to prove their innocence, or someone else’s guilt, over tones actually used or words actually said. The trouble is, there usually is no tape recorder playing, so we are left with our imperfect and often biased perceptions. We seldom consider that our perception may be flawed, that our interpretation is influenced by where we are in life or in our relationships.

I remember an incident years ago. I was near the end of a relationship with a boyfriend because he would not commit himself fully. The final blow was when I made brownies, and he said, “These brownies are almost perfect.” I stewed. He wouldn’t even  commit himself over brownies! It was one more example of how he always held back. The next morning I left for good. The six month relationship was over.

It was years later when I accepted that my interpretation may have been right, but it also may have been wrong. My dissatisfaction with the relationship may have influenced how I interpreted things. In short, his statement about brownies may in fact have been about brownies. This is a humbling experience, because once you accept how subjective interpretation is, you recognize that not only is your perception of events potentially flawed, you are vulnerable to being misunderstood by others as well. When it comes to interpreting things said in relationships, we are all somewhat hearing impaired.

On the other hand, being tone deaf can be a good thing, too.   My older brother often uses a tone with me that he seldom uses with others. Coming from anyone else, I might find it offensive, but coming from him, it is a non-issue. It is not that I don’t hear the angry tone, it’s that I am so certain of the love behind it that I don’t care… I choose not to care.  His tone may be angry, but I know that he is not angry. I call it older-brother-speak, and I am good with it.  That’s the wonderful thing about being tone deaf…. we  have a choice. We can choose to take offense, or we can choose to rely on our knowledge of who the person is and how they feel about us.

In reality, then, there are three tones to each communication: the tone the speaker intended, the tone actually used, and the tone that is interpreted.

When I played cello, being tone deaf was bad, but in relationships, being tone deaf might be a good thing. One thing is certain, there would be a lot fewer arguments  if we were tone deaf to other people, and they were tone deaf to us.

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