How do you know what your partner’s tone of voice means during an actual real-time exchange?
You can ask them and believe their answer. This would be a normal FIML query which resolves the question perfectly in almost all cases.
If you don’t do FIML, you will probably guess. This is normal non-FIML behavior which does not resolve the question very well at all. You could easily be mistaken. Moreover, even if you are right, you can’t be sure. If the tone of voice was significant, you may start a snowball of misunderstanding.
What if you do FIML but still frequently misunderstand your partner’s tone of voice in some situations? For example, my partner sometimes expresses mild alarm or dissatisfaction in a way that often makes me think the situation is more serious than it is. This happens once or twice a month, more or less.
How do I understand this small problem? Is my partner’s tone of voice non-standard or is the way I hear it non-standard? How would we check and even if we did why should we aim to conform to a “standard” that doesn’t truly exist? There may be a rough range of “standard” English alarm tones of voice, and I bet my partner and I know roughly what that is and already do it well enough, but it doesn’t help much in this case because I am still going to misunderstand her a couple of times a month.
A question that might be answered more satisfyingly is: How do I stop misunderstanding?
One thing we can do is have her make her alarm tone of voice a bunch of times while I listen and recalibrate my hearing. Maybe I can also say something about what I hear which will make her recalibrate her speaking a bit.
Doing that will work pretty well. We might stop the misunderstandings, but I am still left wondering about tone of voice. Is there any way to accurately say what it means? How should someone sound when they are alarmed?
Maybe brain scans and many speakers of English will be able to get a clearer picture, but even that picture will change in time as the language changes and those findings, should they ever come to be, won’t do anything for me and my partner right now.
When partners delve into tone of voice they will find that it is just like delving into subjectivity. Can you put an adjective to your subjective state right now? If you look at the object to your left, how should you feel about it?
There is usually no answer to how we should feel subjectively or often even what we are feeling. Tone of voice can be beautifully rich and elusive in a similar way.