At church recently my friend's two-year-old joined in the congregational singing with gusto. The toddler mangled the words, of course, and could not carry a tune in the proverbial bucket; but she clapped her chubby little hands in delight while "making a joyful noise to the Lord."
And noisy, she was. The child sang loudly enough that those around her got tickled, and her father tried to shush her. Though she warbled off-key, I have a feeling heaven enjoyed her musical tribute, even while it made some parishioners a bit nervous.
As a musician with almost-perfect pitch, I've worked with a number of supposedly tone-deaf people. Some are not really tone-deaf at all; they just need practice matching pitches. Others truly are incapable of carrying a tune no matter how much you work with them; they do not hear different frequencies in a way that allows them to reproduce musical tones.
I've noticed the same tendency in conversation: some people are naturally gifted at it; others gradually acquire the skills that allow them to engage in enjoyable and effective back-and-forth exchanges; while others seem genetically incapable of picking up verbal or written cues that keep the conversation flowing.
What constitutes conversational tone deafness?
1. Insisting on one-way communication in a conversational medium.
This is amplified by the number of tools that allow auto-posting of content across channels. Often I see the same message posted on Facebook, Twitter and Plurk, for example, and perhaps identi.ca and ping.fm as well. Outside of noticing duplicate messages, it's a dead giveaway when a status update on another network refers to someone's Twitter user name.
Sometimes it's harder to decipher that a microblogging post is really a broadcast, not an invitation to conversation. People respond to the posting where they found it, yet the author rarely checks for comments on the numerous channels where he or she has scattered the message, leaving the impression that the author is aloof or arrogant or too busy or too uncaring to respond. (After a few times, that person earns an "unfollow" from me.)
Many of the worst offenders are social media consultants, those who are urging clients to "join the conversation" and advising them on best practices for engaging with customers and prospects online. This is not a best practice.
Yes, I know that conversations have become terribly fragmented, and there is no way to gather comments in one spot, which makes keeping up with the conversation much more time-consuming. But that genie is out of the bottle. Try to answer people wherever they want to continue the conversation with you--and think twice before broadcasting messages to social networks where you do not intend to be sociable.
2. Hijacking someone else's conversation.
Some people are conversationally tone-deaf because they do not know how to truly listen. They listen (or read) only as a means of finding a place to insert themselves into the conversation. These are the people who comment on a blog post primarily so they can link to their own site. They are the ones who visit the Facebook page you just spent hours creating and, rather than contributing anything of substance, post a photo or video or link promoting their own page or cause.
Have you ever known someone who had an almost uncanny ability to insert themselves into every verbal transaction? I once worked with a woman like that. She even managed to make the introduction of a guest speaker all about herself, going into detail--irrelevant detail--about some vague connection she had with the speaker.
Conversations take natural turns and wander away from the topic at hand; that's normal ebb and flow. Taking over someone else's comment thread, however, or purposely diverting it in another direction, amounts to hijacking.
3. A lack of respect for other viewpoints.
Blog comments may turn into a heated discussion with rapid-fire volleys exchanged in near-real time. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it means you have hit upon a topic that people are passionate about. What is disturbing though, is a tone-deaf attitude that demonstrates an unwillingness to consider other viewpoints or to dismiss summarily people who hold a different opinion. One of the reasons I am a fan of Conversation Agent is that Valeria treats everyone with respect, offering a thoughtful response even to dissenters.
Some people thrive on snarkiness, and it certainly can drive traffic to a controversial discussion. But it's a risky tactic and can backfire, gaining a short-term boost in readership while alienating long-time subscribers. Clever, humorous writing with an edge is difficult to pull off. If it's not your forte, don't try it.
Also, there is a fine line between being snarky and being downright mean. There is no place for bullying in civil discourse, whether online or in person. If you are the host of an online conversation, you not only have the right but the obligation to provide an open yet safe forum where differing opinions can be shared without a tone-deaf tyrant creating an untenable atmosphere.
What other behaviors have you noticed that amount to being conversationally tone-deaf?
Connie Reece is founder and principal of Every Dot Connects, a social media consortium. She is also a co-founding member and serves on the advisory board of Social Media Club. The opinions expressed in this guest post are entirely her own and not those of Valeria Maltoni or Conversation Agent.