The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Can You Read the Air?

By Andrew Silberman

“It’s not what he said, it’s how he said it that I really can’t stand.”

In the past couple weeks, I’ve heard several people described as “tone deaf,” and none of them were in a karaoke bar.

One referred to a person giving a presentation, another to someone in an e-mail exchange, and the third to a candidate in a job interview.

All three were perceived as tone deaf due to their apparent lack of ability to either “read the air,” empathize with their audience, or simply know when enough is enough.

Real tone deafness (the inability to distinguish tonal relativity) is extremely rare, and almost non-existent in cultures that have tonal languages.

While many poor singers claim to be naturally tone deaf, perhaps as an excuse to avoid the karaoke microphone, musician William Allaudin Mathieu’s work shows that even that musical kind of tone deafness can be fixed through training.

Business-specific cases can also be addressed with a bit of coaching.

Case 1: Tone-deaf presenters

The stage was set for a series of presentations.

Five managers would be presenting for up to 10 minutes each, including a question and answer period.

The first four presenters observed the allotted time, answered two or three questions each, and moved on.

While none of the presenters riveted the audience to their seats, each connected in his or her own way, and communicated a key message.

Then came presenter number five, whom I will call Frank. Well-groomed, with a powerful, resonant voice, Frank had the look of a confident executive. He told the audience he was going to share a “challenging cultural experience.”

Little did they know that the real challenge would be staying with Frank for more than three minutes, let alone the five to 10 he was supposed to take—or the 18 minute-discourse he subjected them to.

After nearly five minutes into his “prepared” speech, Frank had yet to introduce the “experience” he was going to share.

Five more minutes went by and a colleague loudly interrupted Frank with, “Hey! It’s supposed to be five to 10 minutes, and I’ve got a meeting to attend.”

Five minutes later, the speaker wrapped up and then eagerly anticipated questions.

No one wanted to ask, but one person, knowing that someone was supposed to offer a question, tossed up a yes-or-no query.

Frank’s response? Three minutes of abstract words taking us, exhausted and bored, to minute 18.

How many of you have suffered through that kind of presentation?

The worst part is, Frank had no idea how bad he did. Frank likely thought he’d given the best presentation.

However, once we shared his evaluations and footage recorded during his talk, he became aware of how the audience actually felt about his presentation. The camera doesn’t lie, and his 18 minutes of infamy became a wake-up call for Frank.

During the interview
A related tone-deafness often occurs during an interview.

It could be during a job interview, a sales call (another type of interview), or any one-on-one business conversation. Take a look at the example below.

What’s wrong with this dialogue?

Interviewee (extending business card): “Anderson desu, hajimemashite.”
Interviewer (offering her card): “Hajimemashite. By the way, today’s interview will be conducted in English.”
Interviewee: “Hai. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.”

Bizarre, isn’t it?

The interviewer just told the interviewee that she would be conducting the interview in English, and the (American) interviewee just goes right on speaking in Japanese.

Tone deafness in a business sense has everything to do with listening to and empathizing with your audience.

E-tone deaf?
“Brad is just so tone deaf. Check out this e-mail!”

In this third example, one business associate we’ll call Dave was referring to another colleague (Brad), who he called tone deaf because of the “sound” of Brad’s e-mail. What did Dave mean? Was Brad SHOUTING?

Not in this case, although that is a common problem with e-mail’s proliferation. I presume most of us know that writing in all caps is the equivalent of shouting. No, Brad was just overly terse, responding to a request that to Dave’s digital “ears” sounded as if Brad was being dismissive or condescending.

In English 101, we learn that there are different tones used in writing. These can range from formal to informal and casual (some experts add slang as a fourth option).

Dave was not referring to that kind of tone, but to Brad’s lack of acknowledgement.

A simple “thank you” at the start of the message could have gone a long way to softening Dave’s response to the missile.

When it comes to e-mail, you want to connect with a given reader or readers. Remember that e-mail is not communication; it is one-directional, and your tone is all created in the mind of the reader.

Communication, on the other hand, is a two-way game.

Of the three types of tone-deafness reviewed (presenting, interviewing, and e-mailing), e-tone-deafness is the toughest, because it is often difficult to recognize how our written tone comes across to others.

The cure for tone deafness in business starts, like so many communication maladies, with awareness.

Get feedback on how you sound to others.

When communicating in real time, pay attention to your audience: What do they say? How are they feeling? What are they looking at? Are they fidgeting or smiling?

For e-tone deafness, it’s worth reviewing your messages before sending, taking time to edit them (remember, most people will be skimming, not reading), and adding in a friendly phrase or two to keep the e-mail exchange positive.

At the hint of misunderstanding, pick up the phone or walk over to the person’s desk to clear things up.

If you have identified a tone-deaf colleague in your organization, slip them a copy of this article.



Andrew Silberman is president and chief enthusiast of AMT Group ( and an elected governor of the ACCJ.