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The ‘Relatable’ Fallacy

I think I first heard a student declare a book “not relatable” about five years ago. I got the gist, but the word struck me as strange, clumsy. Before long, though, it had become a regular part of student vernacular, and I started to see it even in the The New York Times. Students use this word to express their sense that a text can be related to, that it is accessible to them. Unsurprisingly, contemporary pop culture is by and large relatable. Daniel Defoe? Not relatable. There’s a kind of poetry to the declaration, something vaguely Gallic in the curt finality with which whole epochs of human thought can be dismissed. And so my colleagues and I react as you’d expect, with a kind of ironic resignation at this strange new shape our students’ ignorance has assumed.

I tell my students that their idea of relatability suggests a fallacy. The word “relatable” automatically produces what amounts to a sub-rosa passive-voice construction; it obscures who is doing what in a sentence. When students say, “This movie is relatable,” they think they are saying that “people can relate to this movie.” But this construction—“the movie is relatable”—allows speakers to avoid openly claiming that they think everyone can relate to the movie; its relatability is therefore apparently a quality of the film itself, not a function of who is relating to it. Eighteen-year-olds are not very likely to notice, on their own, the danger of making such a claim.

We can, however, ask a simple, disarming question: Do you think it is safe to assume that someone of a different socioeconomic status, gender, race, or political ideology will relate to this object of analysis the same way you do? Would you feel safe making the assertion that “because I can relate to it, everyone else must be able to relate to it too” (for that is the hidden logic of relatability)? If not, then it is fair only to say that you, specifically, can relate to it, not that it is inherently “relatable.” I think that whether or not an individual professor has thought it through carefully, this is the essential reason the word bothers most of us. I call it the “relatable fallacy.” It seems self-centered, seems to play into a popular narrative about the myopia of this generation of students.

Though the word’s popularity has jumped only very recently, our present understanding of “relatable” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a child of the 60s, first cited by the Oxford English Dictionary in a study of education: “The research indicated that boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable’.” Here we find not only the word’s usual covert passivity, but also, I think meaningfully, an educational context. That “relatable” is already, for professors, an object of strange fascination is visible in the writer’s scare quotes, which I can’t read without hearing mild derision.

Before this, however, the word had two other usages. The first—“able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating”—and the second—“able to be brought into relation with something else”—continue to haunt the present, dominant, usage. In the first, oldest usage, the speaker must ask herself: Will this incident that I have experienced make a good story? Does it belong in the public discourse, or is it either too private or too fractured, discontinuous, or disturbing to be related within the broader currents of conversation and culture? And, in the second usage: Do these two things go together?

When we hear a student use the word “relatable,” we hear the relatable fallacy. But I want to suggest that we also ought to hear those two older meanings, that we ought to hear the student’s desire for a coherent story into which she can imagine herself, the will to imagine the self and the object of analysis as linked, as being able to be brought into a relationship with one another. And I think we also ought to hear the fear of fragmentation, of disruption, of the story that might break a student’s already tenuous connection to the world around her.

The desire and the fear I’m naming here ought to worry us about the dull tools with which students try to fasten their experiences to the complex world around them. Though the relatable fallacy seems to imply that our students are solipsistic, it actually implies that their conceptions of the self and its relationship to a broader culture are undeveloped and incoherent. Students may think about themselves a lot, but almost nothing in their education has helped them figure out how to do so intelligently. My students are not narcissistic maniacs; they are, in fact, alienated from their experiences, strangers to themselves and the immediate surroundings that birthed their intellects—selves and social worlds that probably do not fit perfectly the culture they think they’re supposed to find relatable.

Their use of “relatable,” then, mostly tells us that they haven’t yet learned how to let unfamiliar or dangerously familiar stories, ideas, and theories revise their conceptions of what life is and how it works. They haven’t come to welcome that basic building block of knowledge: the thought that turns the world on its head. They’ve been trained to express their thinking primarily in hastily arranged “essays” for standardized tests. They are rewarded for ramrodding the complexity of any subject into a single-minded thesis with three “supporting points.” When asked whether these sorts of essays express their real, carefully considered thoughts, most students laugh. Of course they don’t. But in the students’ experience, the educational establishment has rewarded them for ignoring or casually dismissing exceptions, arranging their bullet points. In their declarations that something is or is not relatable, the students think they’re giving us what we want.

If pushed, though, they might even admit that it’s not so much that they can’t relate to something, but that they know neither how to establish a relationship nor what such a relationship might mean to them. I remember being 18, and I remember the desperation with which I sought to discover who I was. Most frightening were the cultural artifacts and ideas that reverberated, against my wishes, with aspects of myself and my experience I had sought to repress. They threatened to topple the delicate arrangement of opinions, memories, and facts I’d stacked into what I thought could stand as the persona of a college freshman.

Professors live in the land of the not relatable, a place where the gravity shifts uncannily. As a student, I had a hard time admitting to myself that this was where I already lived. I didn’t, at first, know that my professors wanted me to join them in learning how we might revise the stories we tell so that we can relate more honestly the fine nuances of our lives and others’. And so, as a teacher, I feel the urgency of working harder to listen to what my students say, what they’re trying to relate; because they are, in fact, relatable.

Kit Nicholls is a lecturer in expository writing at New York University.

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