Is there hope for the tone deaf?
May 22, 2022 2:40 PM   Subscribe

I like a certain relative of mine but she can be wildly tone-deaf as far as what she says and when and how she phrases things. It’s cringy and I sometimes get personally offended. Given that she doesn’t grasp what seems like standard etiquette, is there hope she can improve? How would someone learn this stuff, assuming they were even willing? (Don’t know that she would be; just genuinely curious if this stuff is teachable. )
posted by mermaidcafe to Human Relations (12 answers total)
Best answer: The first two questions are is she willing and is she neurotypical.

If she doesn't want to rub people the wrong way and doesn't have trouble reading social cues, it's a little mistifying to me how this could even happen.

It's probably teachable, and it probably involves having a lot of blunt conversations about how and why the things she's saying are less than tactful. If she's on the spectrum or something like that, there are probably extra steps involved in also teaching social cues.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:51 PM on May 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It depends on what you mean. If she specifically says unkind things that would never be appropriate, or doesn't know that term X is racist or insulting, that is teachable. If she doesn't notice other people's social cues or emotional signals, that's teachable to a point (see e.g. social skills training for autistic folks) but requires sustained effort and may never reach a skilled level.
posted by Lady Li at 2:53 PM on May 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is also an attention element. I suspected for a long time that I was on the autism spectrum but I think actually it's more ADHD with me - if I make a point to stop and change my focus and pay attention to other people before I speak, I do much much better, but if I'm just shooting off words on autopilot I can be pretty harsh or tone deaf without meaning to be. Again on the lots of effort, though.
posted by Lady Li at 2:59 PM on May 22, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Sure, assuming she's somewhat open to critique. The method I've used with a couple people I'm close with is generally replaying a recent social interaction, and encouraging them to empathize with how others might have felt by their behavior/speech. If they can accept that there is a pattern at play, then it becomes easier to suggest "hey, you're doing that thing again" in real-time.
posted by coffeecat at 3:29 PM on May 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Have you ever actually expressed your offence when she says something that offends you personally? Start there, and you will soon find out from her reactions whether your relative is doing it innocently/cluelessly or being sneakily malicious. In the end though, you cannot force another person to change, you can only control your own behaviour and reactions to the other person's actions (including things like making it clear that you will remove yourself from her presence if she continues to make offensive comments to you).
posted by heatherlogan at 3:50 PM on May 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: These are great ideas; thanks! I notice it a lot when she asks questions. Once out of the blue she asked me if my shoes “burned up in the fire.” Genuine concern, yet thought that was an acceptable way to suddenly bring up my house fire.
posted by mermaidcafe at 3:54 PM on May 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

How many other friends does she have who are fine with her mode of expression? This might be that neuroatypical thing, She might just be considering you among her other good friends who just communicate that way all the time. You might not like hanging with her other friends. You can probably get her to treat you differently, maybe like another set of friends that are less direct. People usually end up with different groups of friends who probably wouldn't get along together for some reason or another. Don't know if you can change her, but you can probably get into another niche if you try.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:11 PM on May 22, 2022

I know someone who fits this exact description. I think it's obvious to most/all who know her that she is not saying these tone-deaf things on purpose, because she is a genuinely kind person. In her case, I think it might be anxiety which is somewhat social in nature; the reason I think this is because she doesn't really act this way one-on-one. However, in a group setting, esp in certain group settings which are more uncomfortable for her i think, she blurts out things which are often extremely tone deaf. I don't try that much to change her behavior because I am non=confrontational and also I know that she doesn't mean to be hurtful or annoying (and nothing she says is ever close to being mean-spirited or even seeming that way). However, I do notice that she responds/corrects herself if you act taken aback or hurt when she says these things, which I do sometimes.
posted by bearette at 5:16 PM on May 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Nothing in this question mentions anything that would suggest it is appropriate to start internet diagnosing people as autistic or ADHD. People of all kinds are tone deaf and it sure is rather abelist to jump straight to “must be neurodivergent”. Please don’t do this.
posted by Bottlecap at 5:16 PM on May 22, 2022 [11 favorites]

Once out of the blue she asked me if my shoes “burned up in the fire.” Genuine concern, yet thought that was an acceptable way to suddenly bring up my house fire.

There may be some inherent subjectivity at play here. You haven't explained why that was not an acceptable way to talk about your house fire, and I have to admit, I'm not sure I immediately grasp why not. Maybe your standards for politeness are just different/more exacting? Not saying they're wrong, but hers may not be objectively wrong either
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 7:09 PM on May 22, 2022 [15 favorites]

How old is she?
posted by Jacqueline at 7:24 PM on May 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have a relative who has a very oppositional, tone deaf, kinda cringe conversational style.

Like, she contradicts a lot, gives unsolicited advice, fails to pick up cues (or even direct replies like, "yowch!") and says insensitive things.

I can't change her, and treating an autonomous adult as an improvement project isn't ok.

I can only set limits. "Thanks, but I didn't ask/this isn't a debate/that's not appropriate, so anyways..."

My door is open if she wants to have a conversation about improving our relationship.

But, no, you can't change other people.
posted by champers at 2:40 AM on May 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

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