We’re hardwiring ourselves to seek relatability; it’s time to stop.
In 2010 Jane E. Wohl wrote to the language section of the New Yorker with a simple question: her students were using a word she wasn’t familiar with, at least, not in the way she knew it to exist. It was not exactly fleek, yeet, or lit, but it was pervasive all the same. The word was “relatable.”
And if you were wondering, they found Sara Palin relatable.
You’d be forgiven for thinking relatable,in the way that we currently use it, has been around for ages; it’s a word we on a regular basis to describe TV shows we love, mommy-bloggers that seemingly write about our lives, and scores of other things that resonate with us. Yet, being relatable and having relatability are fairly new terminology, the latter not yet recognized by the likes of Word or Medium (as the red squiggle keeps reminding me). Relatable’s definition has expanded from the original usage — the one that people like Wohl know it to mean — which is to relay or tell something. It’s now also defined as “to establish a social or sympathetic relationship with a person or thing; to establish an association, connection or relation.” Which sounds wonderful! Who wouldn’t want to establish a sympathetic connection?
Right, about that.
Connecting with various individuals through some kindred similarity has always been social glue. It has allowed us to build tribes, erect churches, find mates, and do business. But today, our socially connected world has forced us to think of ourselves in relation to our public audience, not just our immediate community. Those who know us, and know of us, can span from a few dozen followers or millions of strangers. Not only that, our followers give us instant and public metrics of how interesting we are to them. Around the time teachers were first inquiring about relatability, we also saw the arrival of Instagram, Twitch, Snapchat and Tinder; each platform demands their own relatability, from appearing like someone you could work with, or someone you could sleep with (and hopefully not both at the same time and place). As a result, we have been hard wiring our language and values towards relatability, endlessly considering how we are sharing the image of ourselves with others, and how we can best be received by them.
Today we’re both freed and imprisoned by our sense of individuality; no one else is like you, as Boomers will gleefully remind the snowflakes among us. You don’t have to be labeled or confined to stereotypes or group identities. It’s your personal journey, your story, your brand. But, when no one else is like you, finding kinship — the kind that makes you say something is identifiable to who you are — is harder. Over half of Americans say they feel isolated or alone, either sometimes or all of the time, according to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center. When we’re feeling isolated and disconnected, abandoned and forgotten, relatable is a magic word to make us included. It says, I share that experience, I’m here, too.
To relate is to feel connected.
Even for scenarios with no relevance to most of our lives, say, in the case of jet-setting influencer beauties, we still seek out the relatable. Look at my messy bedhead in my hotel room (at the Ritz)! I just can’t get my day started without a cup of coffee (in my Gucci tracksuit, in Ibiza). Long a tabloid staple, Stars! They’re just like us! has gone beyond pictures of celebrities buying kumquats to “Kylie Jenner Says Her Sisters Tease Her For Being A Billionaire And It’s Sooooo Relatable” — many a commenter overlooking the absurdity and adding that they, too, have bratty sisters. Memes are riddled with topics and challenges that incite the “that’s so me!” reaction and invite participation, from makeup-free nighttime routines, work life, fails, and the popular other girls vs me. Perhaps another reason we fixate on being relatable is because it is often used as a synonym for likable, something we all strive for. She’s so relatable is given as a compliment. I like you simply because you remind me of me (a narcissistic reason if ever there was one).
In the same vein, we tend to reject those who don’t have natural relatability with us; workplaces often write-off qualified candidates that don’t look or act like the current makeup as “not a good culture fit.” This “relatable personality filter” is likely the reason that until recently, only 3% of advertising creative directors were women, and the other 97% were bearded white men with tattoos. Relatability can be used as a weapon of dismissal against the people whose lives don’t fit our privileged experiences; if your experiences aren’t relevant to me personally, then you simply aren’t relevant.
This premium we’ve put on relatability not only shapes our relationships, it shapes the world that we see. I’m an advertising strategist, and one question I guarantee, across clients and industries, across projects, across agencies; is it relatable? Brands ask it as a question in nearly every brand survey they put in front of would-be customers. Commercials and communications are tested and grilled before they ever reach your living room — is this ad, spokesperson, message, brand relatable to you? Inevitably, you get your verbatims of yes! this has happened to me! But in fair numbers, you get responses of not really, I don’t own a dog/baby/I’m not in the market for a new car/I hate that actor/I’ve never had that happen to me. Sadly, receiving low metrics for “relatable” can be damning to good, imaginative, aspirational and inspiring creative; and all because of the simple reason that most of life is, well boring. Almost everyone can relate with someone watching TV in their pajamas, but do we really want to watch that?
Our stories are increasingly told with relatable as an unspoken mandate. Even our villains, the paragon of evil-not-like-us, have to be peppered with relatable moments, quips and idiosyncrasies. Hannibal, Dexter, Villanelle in Killing Eve, even the Joker isn’t merely a depraved mad-man, he’s seen as a uncomfortably relatable icon to many men on the fringes of society. Yet how alike narratives and characters are to us can’t be our only measure of value. Online reviews of recent books and movies show scores of negative reviews built on the notion that the character or plot was not relatable to the viewer or reader. Rebecca Read wrote for the New Yorker that “to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize — because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy — is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”
Relatable puts ourselves and our experiences at the center of the topic, whether or not we belong there.
Not relating to something is good, because like your grammy said, the world doesn’t revolve around you. We should not be the center of every topic. If something isn’t immediately relatable, then it means we’re out of our comfort zone, beyond our sphere of experience and understanding. I may not personally relate to your struggles as a transgender minority, and that is perfectly fine. What matters is I am listening to what you are saying, not trying to find myself in the center of a place that is not mine to begin with. That’s not to say empathy doesn’t have a place or purpose, of course, but rather that we are too often confounding something or someone’s worth with what it is worth to us personally. “I didn’t relate to it,” is often wielded as a criticism, not a reflection on the uniqueness or daring or what we’re hearing.
It’s natural that we look for comfort in our lives, and gravitate towards the people and things we can feel a personal connection to. But just as necessary are the things that are not our mirrors, but our mountains; the things that are unfamiliar and different from us are what make make us grow. Whether or not we are successful in seeing ourselves in others faces, stories and scenarios can’t be how we decide relevance or value.
And if that sounds like quite the personal challenge, well, to that I can relate.
Jess Watts is a culture and consumer strategist based in Los Angeles.