“Tone Tags” and how to use them

By: Caroline Crosby

I will preface by saying that this article may be a bit opinion-heavy in some places. The goal is to be as clear and concise as possible with this information, but personal bias can be hard to exclude regarding social accommodations such as tone indicators

But what exactly are tone indicators, and why are they used?

The short answer is as the name suggests. They are indications or “tags” that are used to convey tone. Specifically, they clarify the meaning of messages or written posts that could be interpreted in more ways than one. Tags are intended for casual interactions (social networks, SMS, emails, etc.) and were first made popular on text-dependent social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Reddit.

Now that the “what” has been briefly established, we examine the “why” and the common application. 

Tone can drastically influence the meaning of a sentence. For example, let’s say that you and a friend were communicating via a standard messaging system. You send them an uproariously witty comment (in your own humble opinion), and they respond with “I hate you.” 

But what did your friend mean by that? Do they really hate you? Were they joking?

For those who struggle to perceive tone through text, these types of situations can be challenging to navigate. Many people (myself included) struggle to pick up on the intention of a message in written form. For neurodivergent individuals, the lack of indications outside of the words themselves (e.g., physical body language, voice inflection, facial expressions) can make it hard to decode the meaning of a text or post.

That’s where the tags come in!

A few of the more commonly used tags. Image taken from: https://tonetags.carrd.co/

For example, if your friend wanted to convey that their comment was a joke in response to your own, it would read as: “I hate you. /j”.

Alternatively, if your message made them seriously despise you, they would say, “I hate you. /srs”.

Indicators are easy to use and prevent distress from missed social cues. When applied correctly, miscommunication and misunderstandings caused by ambiguous tone in text can always be avoided.

In a day and age where this particular medium of conversation is commonplace, clarity is essential. As non-face-to-face communication, in general, has grown and changed, our syntax, grammar, and sentence structure has adapted as well. 

Likely, you’ve never heard of these fabled “tone tags” before, but they were conceptualized long, long ago. An informative carrd.co site explains:

The tone indicator ‘/s’ has a well-precedented use, spanning years on Reddit. As early on as the 1580s, there have been tone indicators; Henry Dunham, an English printer, created a backwards question mark, ‘⸮’, which he dubbed the ‘percontation point*. It was meant to indicate rhetorical questions”.

In the modern context, they’ve evolved into a form of accommodation.

However, some believe that these devices are “stupid” and/or a form of “babying neurodivergent people”. Pushback also stems from those who think that the indicators are inconvenient or ruin punchlines. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase “but /j ruins the joke”, I would be a formidable customer at the dollar store. But that’s neither here nor there.

Lastly, it’s essential to recognize that not all neurodivergent individuals need these accommodations. Cognitive disabilities come in all shapes and forms, and just because some struggle with identifying tone does not mean that all struggle with it. I’d advise not to push or assume that every neurodivergent person needs to use these. Ask!

As a disclaimer, choosing not to use them on social media or in other contexts does not make you a bad person. It’s up to you whether you want to employ tone indicators or not, but if someone asks you to clarify a message or use the tags when conversing with them, give it a try! 

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