When Interpreting, It's the Tone That Counts!

tone counts

Well, it might not only be the tone that counts, but it does have an impact on how successful the interpretation is.  A misplaced emphasis or an inaccurate inflection can change the meaning of the message and steer the communication off course. Interpreters need to be very careful to select not only the appropriate words to express the meaning but to also use the appropriate tone of voice to carry the meaning through the words.

If you think the conveyance of tone is an optional element of communication (and you probably don’t, but you might know someone who does), let me share two experiences of when the speakers’ tone of voice was just as important as the particular words they were using:

  • Taking the Provider’s Lead: The patient needed to undergo a medical procedure that required her to cooperate and follow the doctor’s instructions. The patient’s previous experience with this medical procedure was, in a word, horrific. As such, the patient’s cooperation was minimal, and she vocalized fears about what was about to happen based on what had happened in the past. The doctor immediately responded by taking a stern, direct tone when speaking the instructions to her (time was of the essence). In my mind I was thinking, gosh, this doctor really isn’t very nice, but my role wasn’t to judge the speaker’s message; it was to deliver it intact. So that’s what I did, grumpy tone and all. Then the darndest thing happened. The patient responded immediately to the instructions and the procedure was performed swiftly and successfully. I didn’t care for the doctor's tone in the moment, but it wasn’t for me to judge. In hindsight, the doctor’s tone made sense and was instrumental in achieving a successful outcome. The patient, who had a terrible experience with this same procedure in the past, thanked the doctor for doing a great job. The doctor said she had a good interpreter. Aw, shucks! Just following your lead, Doctor!
  • Missing the Mark: Upon entering the patient’s room, I was immersed in the sounds of the patient sobbing, a team of nurses hurriedly talking, and the doctor bedside with the patient. It was incredibly tense, to say the least. I felt my body reacting to the environment – tense muscles, shallow breathing, strained vocal cords – at the same time as I was starting to interpret. I could hear the tension in my own voice as I was interpreting the doctor’s words but completely missing the tone. The doctor’s voice was calm, reassuring, steadfast. My voice was agitated, shaky, tense. After taking a deep breath, I reset my body (and voice) and got back to it – this time conveying the tone along with the words. The chaotic environment didn’t instantly subside, but the collected and decisive voice the doctor used was a strategic measure to de-escalate the patient’s distress. As the interpreter, I needed to capture the doctor’s tone of voice in order for the de-escalation strategy to work. It didn’t matter how reassuring the words were if the tone of my voice was conveying a different message. 

Got an example of when your hit or miss on the speaker’s tone made a real difference in the communication? Share your experience! 

Interested in growing your skills at matching the speaker’s tone? Join us for Watch Your Tone! an online continuing education course for medical interpreters.

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