The Awful Emptiness of "Relatable"

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
April 11 2014 3:30 PM

The Awful Emptiness of "Relatable"

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I first encountered the persistent abuse of the word "relatable" while teaching college classes in 2011 and 2012. My students understood the word as a compliment, applying it to texts, situations, and characters. I taught a class about popular culture and childhood, so a lot of things looked relatable: the friendships of the shopping-addicted protagonists of M.T. Anderson's book Feed; Peggy Orenstein's laments over princess culture; the entire concept of Ray Bradbury's 1950 short story "The Veldt."

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

At first, I liked hearing the adjective—yay! I picked the right, resonant thing to assign!—but I soon noticed that the comment, when made in discussion, cut conversation short. Students would nod at each other across the classroom, clearly feeling like they'd cracked that nut. Yeah! Relatable. That's when the word began to irk me. No teacher likes a critique-killer.

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The word bothers me most, I've since decided, because it presumes that the speaker's experiences and tastes are common and normative. "Relatable" is in the eye of the beholder, but its very nature is to represent itself as universal. It's shorthand that masquerades as description. Without knowing why you find something "relatable," I know nothing about either you or it.

When did "relatable" begin its current reign? I never heard it in any of my own high school or college classes. "The word seemed to come from nowhere about five years ago," Ellen Swiggett, a high-school English teacher in Guilford, Conn., told me over email. (Disclosure: Ellen is my aunt; we first realized our mutual dislike of "relatable" over Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago.) "I don't think I'd ever seen it in an essay before, and all of a sudden students were throwing it around with abandon. 'Jay Gatsby is a relatable character.' 'George's behavior in Of Mice and Men is relatable.'"

The use of the word in this particular way would have sounded strange before the middle of the 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first, and oldest, definition of relatable as "able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating" ("The tale of my food poisoning woes is not relatable in this mixed company"). The second meaning is a bit younger: "Able to be brought into relation with something" ("The decrease in frog populations may be relatable to increased industrial pollution").

The third and final meaning, and the one that seems to have grown from nowhere in recent years, is "that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize." The OED finds the first use of this sense of the adjective in 1965. The Google Ngram Viewer depicts the word in a steep postwar upswing, topping out in 1975. (Of course, there's no way to tell with an Ngram which of the three meanings we're tracking.) An even less scientific search of the word in Google News turns up uses of the word in headlines for reviews of all kinds of culture: TV shows, books, movies, music. I see it on Slate, too! Tsk, tsk.

When I saw University of Iowa English professor Adam Hooks bemoaning "relatable" on Twitter, I asked him what his experience had been with the word in the classroom. "'Relatable' is a sign of a failure to engage with the work or text, a failure to get beyond one's own concerns to confront the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable," he wrote to me in an email. In other words, the quest for the "relatable" circumscribes the expansion of empathy that you can gain through exposure to new things. When the word "relatable" really means "relevant to me," as it often does in the classroom, anything outside the purview of "relatability" looks like it's not worth examining.

Hooks teaches Renaissance drama, and thinks that the unfamiliarity of that form provokes the use of "relatable" more frequently in his classroom: "Language is a factor," he writes. "Students often find it very difficult, and so grasp for something to make it more comprehensible and familiar." The problem arises when "relatability" becomes the sole interpretive lens.

For students encountering historical texts, the occasional experience of unrelatability is the whole point of inquiry. Can you "relate" to being enslaved, for example?  Probably not, but that should make the prospect of reading Frederick Douglass all the more enticing. Many popular texts printed in the United States before the 20th century dwell on religious thought in a way that seems strange to us now. How can nonreligious people living in the 21st century "relate" to that mindset? The realization "I don't relate to that" could be followed by a subsequent self-examination: "What is it about my life, and my time, that has made it so that I don't really get it?"

There's one salvaging thought that makes me reconsider my aversion to the word. I searched Twitter and Tumblr for the term, and found that there are whole cottage industries built on "relatable" content. Twitter accounts like @JustRelatable (1.8 m followers) and @relatable (2.3 m followers) tweet out meme-ified photos that rely on shared experiences for their humor.

Many of these tweets seem to come from a female point of view. Tweets feature cute male celebrities, nostalgic roundups of favorite Disney characters, and jokes about menstrual cycles and body image. I've thought, without having a specific reason for it, that the word is often used to signify "humble," "vulnerable," "awkward," or "fallible." "Relatable" Twitter externalizes sadness, desire, and weakness. (And provokes some meanness in return.)

Could "relatable" Twitter and Tumblr be spaces for girls to feel better about shared experiences that would otherwise be painful? Far be it from me to deny them!

Let's just erect a 700-foot, solid-ice wall between social media and the classroom. There.

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