Boundary Setting vs. Tone Policing

Boundary Setting vs. Tone Policing November 5, 2016

Be able to know and articulate your boundaries is essential for not only having a good sex life, but also having mature adult interactions with those around you. But there’s a key difference between setting boundaries and policing someone’s tone.

Photo by Alexis Brown from Unsplash.
Photo by Alexis Brown from Unsplash.

Sometimes upholding boundaries is easy and results in warm fuzzy feelings; other times, not so much. But most of us don’t even have language for these experience. While I advocate for teaching about relationships as part of universal sex education, the sad truth is that most of us are left on our own to discover healthy ways of communicating.

If you haven’t encountered tone policing before, it’s when people in a relative position of power dismiss the valid/real concerns of less-powerful people based on the tone they use. Yes, this happens, and it’s shitty. But how to distinguish tone policing from healthy boundary setting?

This Brute Reason blog post makes clear the argument that was, til now, somewhat fuzzy in my head: that yes, there is a difference between boundary setting and tone policing. And it is this: setting boundaries is about controlling your own space (your home, a conversation you’re in) whereas tone policing is about dictating how someone else should act. Tone policing is often used to dismiss valid points by implying that if only they’d been phrased differently you would’ve listened (which shows that you’re perfectly capable of listening, but choose not to).

There’s also an intention component, though of course good intentions are not a magic wand. Brute Reason says it best:

If someone hears “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit” and responds with, “Whoa, it’s not ok to speak to me that way,” they’re often told that they’re tone policing and trying to prevent someone else from expressing anger. That’s not the case. The fact that someone has a boundary around being referred to as a “worthless piece of shit” doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to hear that someone is angry with them, or that they think the other person’s feelings are invalid.

I could say more, but I really think the blog post speaks for itself, so go read it.

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