Tone Patrol: Nailing the Fine Line Between Sassy and Snarky

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We live in a world where you have to speak up for what you want. You need to be able to verbalize what you need, to share your opinions and your goals, to take a stand and to communicate with others. Virtually every relationship, opportunity and experience you have relies on your ability to communicate. And while your words matter, sometimes it’s not about what you say, as much as it is about how you say it. Your tone greatly impacts how your words are perceived, and as most of us know from experience, there is a fine line between sassy and snarky, and snarky rarely goes over well.

Your tone of voice matters. It impacts how you communicate with others whether you are parenting, dealing with a spouse or partner, talking to friends, collaborating at work or simply trying to get a point across in a casual conversation. What you say is important, but research suggests that how you say it might be just as impactful.

Which is why it is so crucial that you are not only aware of the tone of voice you use, but are also able to control that tone so you can really get your message across. And we’re here to help you nail your tone so you can perfect the art of getting your point across in a sassy but not snarky way. Thank us later.

The Science Behind Tone of Voice

First, a little background on what your tone of voice is and why it matters. For years scientists and psychologists have explored the way your tone of voice impacts what you say and how you communicate. Back in the 60s a psychologist and professor in Southern California not only researched the crap out of the topic, but also wrote several books sharing his findings, his theory and his wisdom on the subject of tone and nonverbal communication. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles, wrote a book entitled Nonverbal Communication (among others), where he shared his take on how we communicate. His studies concluded that communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal. By nonverbal he means everything from facial expressions, gestures, postures, and tone. In his opinion, tone of voice makes up 38 percent of our communication. While his research has received a fair share of criticism, it certainly opens up a big discussion on how our words are perceived, and how we communicate verbally and nonverbally with others. Arguably, one of the most important factors that influence how we convey our opinion, feelings, and thoughts to others is our tone of voice.

Another study from the University of Southern California analyzed how tone of voice can predict and influence a successful relationship. Yes, the way you speak to your partner can have a huge impact on how happy and lasting your relationship is. Which actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Even if you say “thank you so much for doing the dishes” to your spouse, which is a seemingly polite and thankful statement, if you say it with a sarcastic tone then it suddenly becomes insulting and fueled by anger. It’s easy to be deceptive with your words, but it’s a lot harder to fake a tone of voice. It really makes you rethink how you speak to your husband when you pretend to be happy but you’re really pissed off inside. 

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of Interspeech in September 2015. An interdisciplinary team of researchers recorded hundreds of conversations from couples going through marital issues over the course of two years. That same team then used a computer algorithm that broke those recordings into acoustic features — think pitch, intensity and other voice features that can indicate emotion. By evaluating those voice features from the couples’ conversations, the computer algorithm was able to predict whether the couple would have an improved or worsened relationship based on the tone of voice that was used, with nearly 79 percent accuracy. 

“What you say is not the only thing that matters, it’s very important how you say it. Our study confirms that it holds for a couple’s relationship as well,” explains Md Nasir, a doctoral student and researcher who worked on this study. 

The Difference Between Sassy and Snarky

Many of us lump the words snarky and sassy together and use them interchangeably to describe the same kind of sarcastic, clever, smart but also borderline mean humor. But they are actually two very distinct tones. Snarky is a combination of “snide” and “remark,” making it a snide remark that often involves some level of mockery in an indirect way. Sassy implies that someone is a smart aleck, that they are spirited, outspoken, bold and cheeky. It’s less about mockery and more about wit.  

In some situations being a bit sassy and witty is not only appropriate but also helpful. It can lighten the mood, help people bond, help you establish yourself and assert your opinion, and it can showcase your cleverness. Wit is good. But being snarky is often not. What you don’t want is to come across as obnoxious, passive-aggressive or angry. Snark often involves backhanded compliments, cynical comments, and a harsh yet passive-aggressive tone, where the words being spoken aren’t offensive but the tone used certainly is. Snark has a rudely critical tone. Sass, on the other hand, is usually playful and witty and makes people smile. They are different tones, and even if you said the same thing, they will come across differently depending on how you say it.

Managing Your Tone of Voice and Why it Matters

So how do you make sure you walk that fine line between sassy and snarky with ease? How do you ensure that you say what you mean in a way that actually comes across in your tone?

The first step is simple — think about what you really want to say and how you actually feel. As we said before, it’s easy to lie with your words or cover up your emotions with what you say. But it’s really hard to fake a tone of voice. Your words may deceive but your tone rarely does. So if you are trying to say something complimentary but you’re frustrated or angry on the inside, it is much more likely to come across as snarky. 

Next, listen to yourself. If you want to effectively manage your own tone of voice, then you need to hear how you sound to others. Think about the last time you were in a fight with your spouse, but you told them “you were fine” just to try and move on and make peace. Chances are that “fine” didn’t sound fine at all. You probably spoke with negativity, snark, and probably an eye roll or two. Your tone matters, and remember that how we sound matters just as much, if not more, than what we say.

sassy Kindness No Snark

Lastly, you need to choose to use a happier, more positive tone of voice. Having a dry sense of humor and using sass from time to time is okay, but if you don’t want to come across as rude, then you need to actively try not to sound rude. And as it turns out, changing your own tone of voice won’t just positively impact those who listen to you, it will boost your own mood as well.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked into how our voices can influence our emotional state. An international team of researchers used a digital audio platform to covertly manipulate people’s tones when they spoke to make them sound happier, sadder or more fearful. After listening to their own voices as they read aloud a short story in that altered tone of voice, participants changed their mood and took on the emotion that their voice was expressing. 

“The voice is one of our main channels of emotional expression, and the results of this study indicate that when we speak we do not just influence others but also ourselves,” said Dr. Petter Johansson, one of the study’s authors, according to The Huffington Post. “In a sense, we listen to our own voice to find out how we feel.”