Enjoying Your Work
Tone of voice can be as important as words used
The nonverbal cues that are part of face-to-face communication will always play a major role in the interpretation of messages.
When interacting with others, people choose to use certain words. But they also deliver their choice of words with non-verbal cues such as voice tones, body movements, facial expressions, and the presence or absence of eye contact.
The manner in which these cues are used, especially their contributions to positive or negative feelings, has an impact on how the choice of vocabulary is received by the recipients of messages.
The use of nonverbal cues is especially important in cultures that have a strong oral tradition. In such cultures, written language is a relatively new introduction. People still talk to each other a great deal and have not always adopted conventions based on written communications. In Hawaii, there are still reminders that oral traditions are much older than written communications. Many people still prefer face-to-face interactions with others rather than communications through letters or phone calls. This can be seen in the local tradition of responding to invitations to social gatherings. Even if the hosts of such gatherings put "RSVP" at the bottom of invitations, they should not expect that all people will respond with a note or phone call. Rather, the invitees feel that they may see the host at the beach or at the shopping center. Then, they can tell the host that they would like to come to the gathering.
The importance of nonverbal cues during oral communications has to be kept in mind when ethnic group epithets are used. Many people from the mainland United States find the word "haole" to be offensive. They feel that use of the term reduces them to a negative stereotype and that users of the term would be offended if epithets for their own groups were used in the same way. In the workplace, employees are filing complaints that the use of ethnic group epithets contributes to a hostile environment that leads to lower worker productivity.
Epithets to describe ethnic groups are used more frequently in oral than in written communications. Given the choice of vocabulary during face-to-face communications, nonverbal cues must be integrated into the task of message interpretation.
The tone of voice used when "haole" is spoken needs special attention. When the term is used with a pleasant tone of voice, the term can be descriptive rather than evaluative. That is, speakers might use the term to describe someone and to distinguish that person from others. "Let's ask the haole girl to be on our company volleyball team" can simply refer to a person who played well during a picnic at the beach last weekend.
When the term is used with a negative tone, then it probably will be interpreted as evaluative. If people say, "The haole guy who was the first to speak at the union meeting" with a sneer in their voice, they are probably referring to a shared negative stereotype. These can include the perceptions that mainland Anglos always have opinions about which they are extremely confident, speak in a very loud voice, and think they know how to run things after living in Hawaii for only a few months.
The need to interpret cues beyond the choice of vocabulary needs to be applied to all ethnic group epithets.
When my children were younger, I was involved as a coach in various youth athletic leagues. At basketball tryouts, a coach said that he would like to work with "the Portagee kid." While some listeners may have found the term offensive, I did not. He was trying to distinguish among the basketball hopefuls who were displaying their talents, and he clearly had admiration in his voice for one youngster's dribbling, passing, and rebounding skills.
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The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office: firstname.lastname@example.org