One night, many years ago, my son Richard came to the dinner table with a pencil and a notebook.
“No, homework at the table,” my husband said. “Put your notebook away until after dinner.”
“One second,” Richard said.
My husband and our five children carried on in our usual loving, yet chaotic, way.
I served dinner and Richard continued to write in his notebook.
Let’s just say, throughout Richard’s childhood, he spent many a Saturday guarding the front door, waiting for the mailman so he could intercept notes from school alerting us to either a detention date, a bad test grade or unacceptable behavior.
So, watching him scribble in his notebook, completely absorbed in what he was doing was a joy.
Our family ate dinner and commented on the vegetable soup, weighing in on if vegetable soup is better with more broth or more vegetables.
Even a conversation as benign as that could spark intense controversy at our house, ferocious debate.
Our voices escalated, and we talked over one another.
Richard continued to write.
Halfway through the meal, Richard stopped. “I was writing down everything you said,” Richard confessed. “It was a homework assignment for school.”
My first reaction was to PANIC.
What view into our nutty lives was his teacher going to see?
What had we said?
I’ve written about how our family can be combative, in Stand Up Comedy at Omega, and how sometimes, depending on the topic, the conversation can get dicey.
We have a wide-range of beliefs in our family and an unfortunate need to be right.
Had we discussed religion, politics or racism?
Had we discussed environmentalism?
Richard read us his notes. Basically we’d spent 20 minutes arguing about vegetable soup.
I was so relieved!
But the experience served to wake me up. While there was something fun, and funny, about our vegetable soup discussion, this experiment made me realize dinnertime was a time I could reach my children and we could discuss important topics, share values and enlighten one another, broadening our perspectives.
Times have changed; and my children have grown.
Recently only my youngest child was at home, and since she is so past the era of pencil and paper, she used her smart phone to video my husband and I in a discussion, okay a debate.
Again, my first reaction was to panic when I realized what she was doing.
What had we said?
What did we look like?
Again, I was relieved to find the video was mostly funny, and not too bad.
There was something to learn.
There was something in my voice that was a bit too acerbic. It went unnoticed, or at least I think it did. But I took note. Sure, I’d been frustrated by the conversation; but is there ever an excuse, even in the height of frustration, to speak in a way that can be construed as pejorative or offensive?
Recently, I stumbled on an article by John Gottman author of:
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
What Makes Love Last?
The article was titled, How You Talk To Your Partner Matters, and it pointed out that it’s not what you say but how you say it.
Think about it.
Not that I recommend this, but you can say, “I hate you” in a playful way and it has an entirely different meaning than if you say the same thing with anger.
And you can say, “Have a great day” but depending on if you say it sincerely or sarcastically, the same words have a completely different connotation.
And it’s in the meaning that we take our cues.
Gottman goes so far as to say that the tone of your voice may be a key indicator of your marital success.
Paying attention to the tone of your voice is probably good advice for the health of any relationship.
Here are some things to consider:
PITCH– how high or low is your voice. A high voice signals anger.
PACE– if you speak too fast, you might not be understood. Too slow, and your voice can sound demeaning.
VOLUME– No yelling!!
TIMBRE– emotional quality of your voice, your attitude: frustrated, rushed, happy, sad.
Timbre is where I fell short. I hadn’t been yelling but I was a bit frustrated, and it showed.
I plan to be more mindful.
Who knows— in another ten years my grandson might record my husband and I communicating using some form of virtual reality.
And I want to look good.