Prosody is a word used to describe the rate, rhythm and melody of our speech. We change these features when we speak in order to convey meaning beyond the words. This can include emotional content such as humor, sarcasm and emotion. For example, the word “fine” can convey a range of emotions and meanings depending upon the tone or prosody the speaker uses. Prosody can also convey information about the speaker’s meaning or intent, such as when asking a question or placing stress upon a word. For instance, the question, “What are you doing here?” is asking for very different information depending on the stress or emphasis used (i.e., “What are you doing here?” vs. “What are you doing here?”). RHD often causes difficulty with producing or understanding prosody, a disorder called aprosodia (a pro so dia). After RHD a person can have trouble producing prosody resulting in “flat” sounding or monotone speech. This is often coupled with minimal change in facial expressions and body language, making it hard to read that person’s emotions or intentions (was he joking or being serious?). The person may also have difficulty understanding others’ use of prosody and body language. This can cause misunderstandings and make it appear like the person with RHD is being insensitive to their partners’ emotions and subtle meaning.
Prosodic features are often paired with body language or facial expressions to help us send our intended message. In short, these are the non-verbal parts of our message, and they carry a large proportion of our intended meaning.
What you can do
The good news is that RHD does not usually affect direct language. This means that we can use this strength to help them to clarify their meaning and to help them understand ours. For example, if you ask a the person how they are feeling and they respond, “Fine,” you may be unsure if the actual intent was to use sarcasm to convey the idea that they are actually not fine. In such a case, you may want to ask some clarifying questions like, “Are you feeling well?” or “Are you happy?” or I want you to tell me when you are starting to get frustrated.” Similarly, if they have trouble understanding your non-verbal communication, you can add additional statements such as, “I am feeling tired today” or, “I was joking.”