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Gen Z is obsessed with tone indicators on TikTok. Here’s a mini guide on how to use them

By Malavika Pradeep

Jul 25, 2021

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It has been 500 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and 500 days since I’ve been struggling to text my friends an ‘okay’ without an exclamation mark to follow. Because, who knows? They might read my text when they’re not feeling their best and assume I’m not interested in their lives anymore. Maybe it’s just me overthinking or maybe it’s time we have a set of rules to help clear things up before they are even read. Enter tone indicators, a revolutionary communication tool—pioneered by and for gen Z—that speaks volumes on platforms you physically cannot.

What are tone indicators?

Tone indicators are paralinguistic signifiers typically used to convey the tone of a text message. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘tone’ is “a quality in voice that expresses the speaker’s feelings or thoughts.” You may be joking when you admit to wanting Harry Styles to run you over with a bus online. Sometimes your message may be intended as a tease or a threat. It could also be sexually suggestive or entirely Safe For Work (SFW). Either way, tone indicators are what change the meaning and the implication of your sentence on platforms you can’t verbally do so.

In this regard, the tool helps users convey their intent and emotions behind a piece of text they’ve posted online. Some examples include “/j” meaning the user is joking, “/srs” for serious, “/lh” for light-hearted and “/sx” for sexual intent.

https://twitter.com/ikuklino/status/1417888658825359364

Tone indicators are currently popular on both Twitter and Tumblr, with TikTok picking up on the tool for captions with more than three million views. On the two former platforms, tone indicators are used by gen Zers with overlapping interests in anime, K-pop, twee aesthetics, identity representation and a general sensitivity towards mental health and gender issues. “It’s a milieu where inclusivity is considered a paramount virtue,” The New York Times noted. All of these users equip tone indicators as part of their vocabulary in order to help others have better experiences online.

Although tone indicators can be used by and for everyone, they came about as a way for neurodivergent users to be able to understand tone through text. Neurodivergent (often abbreviated as ‘ND’) refers to a broad category of people with a range of neurological differences including autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia. Some neurodivergent people find it difficult to decipher the subtle cues associated with sarcasm or flirtation in particular and are therefore tone-indicator enthusiasts.

“But you don’t have to be neurodivergent to use them, or for other people to use them when they’re talking to you,” a website hosted on Carrd reads. “After all, tone indicators are a helpful tool for everyone.”

How can I use tone indicators?

Tone indicators are typically used at the end of a relevant sentence. A forward slash is followed by the abbreviation of the intended tone. However, it is recommended to put tone indicators both at the beginning as well as the end of a post if the content might cause distress or alarm otherwise.

So what is a ‘relevant’ sentence to use tone indicators in?  Well, tone indicators can be used anywhere over text be it personal chats, social media or even emails—absolutely anywhere the tone is ambiguous and hard to pick up on. But one disclaimer is to avoid using them as a joke. It defeats their entire purpose and strips a safe space from neurodivergent people. An example of this is a tweet by a random user which reads “I am the current President of the United States /srs.”

Also remember to include tone indicators in the original post instead of commenting “/j” or “/srs” after others have already perceived your tone of voice. It is also condescending if you use tone indicators in excess. Usually just one or two is enough, so avoid using them like a hashtag. Not all neurodivergent people need—or even want—tone indicators either. “They might feel as though they’re being condescended or infantilised,” the Carrd website reads. “People will often have it explicitly somewhere on their profile if they do want you to use tone indicators.” 

Every person is different and perceives things differently. So make sure to respect their preferences before whipping out those forward slashes. And if you believe they might be useful to you and others around you, here’s a masterlist of tone indicators to add to your internet vocabulary today:

/j = joking
/hj = half joking
/s or /sarc = sarcastic / sarcasm
/srs = serious
/nsrs = not serious
/lh = light hearted
/g or /gen = genuine / genuine question
/ij = inside joke
/ref = reference
/t = teasing
/nm = not mad
/lu = a little upset
/nbh = nobody here
/nsb = not subtweeting
/nay = not at you
/ay = at you
/nbr = not being rude
/ot = off topic
/th = threat
/cb = clickbait
/f = fake
/q = quote
/l or /ly = lyrics
/c = copypasta
/m = metaphor / metaphorically
/li = literal / literally
/rt or /rh = rhetorical question
/hyp = hyperbole
/p = platonic
/r = romantic
/a = alterous
/sx or /x = sexual intent
/nsx or /ns = non-sexual intent
/pc or /pos = positive connotation
/nc or /neg = negative connotation
/neu = neutral / neutral connotation

Although tone indicators have been on a quest to make social media a better place, they are not a new concept. For ages, fellow redditors have been using “/s” to denote sarcasm in their posts. In 1575, a British printer named Henry Denham created a backwards question mark, “⸮”, which he dubbed the “percontation point.” It was meant to indicate rhetorical questions. In 1668, Anglican clergyman and philosopher John Wilkins proposed that ironic statements could be indicated with an inverted exclamation mark. Both failed to catch on during their times. Fast-forwarding 445 years, however, both the tones are now denoted by the use of “/rh” or “/rt.”

So, if you were looking for a concrete set of rules to guide clarity for online communication all along, this is it. If people still misunderstand you, be patient, explain and move on. If you spot someone using it as a joke, however, remember that Twitter is testing downvote buttons on tweets for a reason.