I am JJ: For a child with a food allergy, tone matters

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Attention parents: Teaching your children what to say to others about their food allergy is important. But we also should be practicing with them how to say it. 

Tone matters, especially when we are trying to educate someone to go above and beyond to accommodate our food allergy needs. 

Our tone is our attitude, it's our mood, it's our approach to any given situation. Our tone often communicates what we're feeling underneath the surface.

So if I'm in a situation where I'm feeling I don't trust a person — whether it is a waiter at a restaurant or a barista at the coffee shop or an event planner for an upcoming seminar — that negative feeling could come through in my tone. If I'm feeling that the person I'm talking to isn't taking me serious enough or isn't professional enough or isn't smart enough, etc., that could come through in my tone. And if it does, it may create unnecessary problems for me.

If I'm standing in a busy restaurant making demands in a tone that is demeaning toward others, I will immediately push the hostess or the waiter or the manager or the chef into a corner.  No one wants to listen to someone who they feel is bullying them or talking down to them. 

When it comes to my allergy, I always make certain assumptions about people. I assume most people I come across want to do the right thing to accommodate my allergy. I also assume that most people need to be educated properly.

That being said, I assume that most people are terrible listeners. Let me say that again in case you were spacing out. When I am talking to someone about my allergy, I assume that most people I talk to are terrible listeners. It's nothing personal. It's science. In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, Sean Covey says that people are poor listeners because they're "usually too busy preparing a response, judging, or filtering their words through our own paradigms.”  Seven percent of communication is contained in the words we use, Covey says. Only 7 percent listen to "cross contamination" and "life threatening" and "serious" and "use clean utensils." The rest of how they hear us comes from our body language (53 percent) and the tone reflected in our voice (40 percent). 

What does this mean? It means if I want to be a true advocate for myself I have to worry about more than just getting my words right. 

We must empower our children with food allergies to advocate for themselves. But do our children know how to advocate for themselves? We live in a time where being an advocate is often confused with being tough or loud or confrontational. Advocating for yourself is not fighting everyone in your path. Advocating for yourself means being a champion for yourself. Think more teacher, less drill sergeant.

Of course, there are situations where I stand there in disbelief. I want to scream, "Really! I already told you three times about not using the same spatula for my burger..." But I don't, at least not in the moment. It won't help my situation.

Tone matters.

If I need to make sure a friend understands why I am asking him not to bring his coffee into the car, my tone matters. 

If I need to make sure the chef understands what cross contamination really means, my tone matters.

If I need to make sure my waiter knows that my food allergy really is not the same as his girlfriend's lactose intolerance, my tone matters. 

I won't talk down to anyone. I won't talk at anyone. I won't accuse. I won't threaten. I won't embarrass, especially when one's reluctance is simply a matter of misunderstanding. 

If my voice conveys anger, fear, contempt, mistrust, doubt and despair, all is lost. Not only will they not hear what I'm saying, they probably won't like me. People rarely go the extra mile for someone they don't like.

A pleasant tone is like a spice. Used correctly, it can enhance any meal. That's why I carry it with me — in the same pocket as my AUVI-Q — whenever I leave my apartment.


JJ Vulopas is a senior at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. An advocate for young people, JJ has lived with food allergies his entire life. He is the author of the children's book, Land of Not. You can read his daily blog at www.thelandofcan.com and follow him @thelandofcan on Twitter and Instagram.