Have you ever witnessed someone using language painfully out of tune with the present company? Examples I’ve encountered include
- A college student, charging meals and shopping sprees to their parents’ credit card, complaining about how poorthey are in front of peers who struggle to pay tuition on their own
- A museum docent welcoming a Korean-American visitor from Santa Barbara with the Mandarin Chinese greeting ni hao
- A professor repeatedly referring to the women in his graduate seminar as girls
Every day, people use language in ways like this, slightly out of tune with the immediate
situation, ways we might describe as tone-deaf. Considered more literally, a tone-deaf musician cannot hear what their instrument sounds like relative to the pitch of others. A tone-deaf singer can sing loudly and clearly—while completely unaware of the cacophony their voice causes when surrounded by a chorus of voices singing in a different key. This can lead to some pretty painful listening. In conversations, metaphorical tone-deafness can also lead to painful situations. Often and understandably, the person most directly affected by tone-deaf turns of phrase may not feel they can speak up. Or, that if they do, the tone-deaf person may become defensive and the conversation will go nowhere. Tone deafness is an unfortunate state, but one with a remedy: More talk about language, that is, citizen sociolinguistics.
Almost nobody purposefully intends to be communicatively tone-deaf. For this reason I prefer the formulation tone-deaf to the term micro-aggression which might also be used to describe the example scenarios above. The term micro-aggression suggests these instances of tone-deaf language use originate from a malicious individual, intentionally using language aggressively to demean another person. In contrast, the term tone-deaf refers to a societally-induced state, one fostered by poor language education—even among our most privileged classes. Advice to combat micro-agressions usually involves highlighting words or speech events to avoid: Don’t use the n-word. Don’t ask Asian-Americans where they are from. Things to NOT say. Unfortunately, this kind of advice can lead to accusations of “political correctness,” or to people simply clamming up in the face of the unfamiliar. Instead of leading to further conversation about assumptions behind our language choices, conflicts around language across diverse groups continue to seethe beneath the surface.
Citizen sociolinguistic inquiry provides an alternative to these prescriptions for sensitive language use: More discussion about language and more consideration of different perspectives. We do not need a prefabricated list of words to use and not use, but an increased level of language awareness, and the skills to inquire about words and their uses and meanings across contexts. Situations of tone-deafness arise every day, but they can be curtailed by improving language education, by specifically teaching our children how to tune in to the everyday workings of language in context.
Being tone deaf, speaking without regard for the other perspectives in a community, can be the result of any overly standardized language education, in which expertise is seen only to be lodged in the voice of the teacher or the text of a grammar book. Even professors with PhDs, working at prestigious universities, might appear tone-deaf until less powerful individuals have the courage to call them out. While a tone-deaf person may have excellent language skills according to one context and set of criteria, they have an underdeveloped ability to assess the context in which they are speaking, and the way others might receive their words. An education that enables such tone-deafness is an undereducation, because it never builds the expertise necessary to engage in the cycle of dynamic language awareness: In many language arts classrooms, students have never been pushed to engage in citizen sociolinguistic inquiry.
A tone-deaf use of language, if unchecked, can have the opposite effect of citizen sociolingistic discussion. Instead of fomenting conversations about language, it can silence less powerful voices. Unless someone speaks back—for example, by calling someone out on the type of language they use—that tone-deaf perspective becomes the only one people hear. Nobody learns from alternatives. People who are literally tone-deaf may be discouraged from ever pursuing music. They just won’t be able to participate. The equivalent action for the conversationally tone-deaf would restrict those who are tone-deaf to their own neighborhood of language use, be it an Ivory Tower, fraternity or sorority, family or clique, or other any other walled-off language community that “understands” them.
Fortunately, however, being metaphorically “tone deaf” is something we can work to avoid by having conversations about language and including language awareness and inquiry as part of any language arts education: Let’s investigate who uses the word girl in different ways and why, explore uses of ni hao and all the ways Asian Americans experience that greeting, discuss how people relate to the word poor and the implications. We can also develop inquiry skills to investigate more obviously controversial words like the n-word, fag, or the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Any tone-deaf encounter provides us impetus for a discussion about language and how it affects all of us. Each conversation about language can illuminate the ways we have all been socialized into different understandings of how certain words work.
When we talk about language, we develop an inquiry skill that all humans need — the ability to listen to others and to engage with different perspectives. The more we talk about language, the more deeply we understand how and why some language may be hurtful, and how some can be powerful; how words like girl or ni hao may be offensive to some or how people experience words like poor differently. But more generally, we develop ongoing habits of awareness of context and the way language works within it. This is the goal of citizen sociolinguistics.
Have you experienced tone-deaf uses of language? Have you developed ways to avoid them or combat them? Please talk about your experiences in the comment section below!