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Remembering that Tone Is Everything

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Like most of us, commentator Andrei Codrescu has found himself stuck on hold, listening to recorded voices, voices telling him that his call is important and to please hang on the line. Well, he's used all that time to think about how we interact with the powerful in this age of automation.

ANDREI CODRESCU:

The hardest task of the ordinary citizen now is to know just what tone to take with those who decide one's fate. It was easier back when one might theoretically encounter the powers face to face. In those days, words were accompanied with body language, and when one got to the end of words with a boss or a bureaucrat, one could simply end the conversation by slugging him. Doing that to a mechanical voice on the phone or to an e-mail address is useless because one hurts only one's own person and objects.

Anyway, back to tone. In case one does manage to speak to a human on the phone and in person, by the time such a contemporary miracle is achieved, most people feel like screaming. Then, depending on how civilized, repressed or afraid they are, they produce a variety of tones from reasonableness to pleading to threatening, all of which are only modulations of the primal scream. Yet it is possible for a petitioner to get a modicum of justice if one keeps firmly in mind that, one, no one is completely powerless for the simple reason that one can become totally insane; and two, the audience is by itself proof that something can come of it.

With those two principles in mind, one can work on one's tone of voice. Successful tones of voice--those that get results, that is--also include something seductive--a promise of something good for the boss, a wad of cash, a fling, free vacation, a post-encounter feeling of smugness for him, the granter of mercy. In other words, if you get a hold of a human either on the phone or in the physical world, don't freak out until you get what you want. I should've been Ann Landers.

Of course, chances that you'll ever get to speak to anyone who will actually fix your problems are nil. Power has learned the greatest kung fu move of all time: Make yourself invisible. Make anger rebound on the angry. Put as much distance between yourself and the object of your extortive and impersonal tyranny as possible. Power is nowhere and everywhere at the same time, while you, the screwed, are always in a specific place and time trying to transcend what hurt you in the first place.

Latin languages make provisions for relations of power by the use of different forms of second-person address. Such forms of address serve in themselves to moderate relationships and to prevent screaming. Such forms were developed, of course, in the days when people dealt with people, even if some people were peasants and others sat on thrones. These days, `don't take that tone with me' is quaint except for family, which is the only place people run into people anymore.

NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu is the author of "New Orleans, Mon Amour." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.