I understand the literal meaning of "Tone-deaf". As Wiktionary puts it:

Unable to clearly distinguish the difference in pitch between different notes.

But what's the metaphorical meaning?

As a random example, how would I interpret it in this op-ed

That is a tone-deaf statement, on a couple of levels.

  • 6
    It a metaphor based on the notion of a musician who has no sense of pitch or tone formation. He's playing along, thinking he's thrilling everyone, when in fact people have an adverse reaction to him. In speaking, it's prattling on blithely, oblivious to the fact that the crowd is not at all "in tune" with him and may well treat the speaker's words with hostility. – Robusto Jun 12 '14 at 11:15
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Just as a literally tone-deaf person is unable to comprehend the differences between musical notes, a metaphorically tone-deaf person is unable to comprehend the different facets/nuances of a given situation. A statement such a person makes might also be described as tone-deaf.

It differs from words like ignorant because when you're calling someone ignorant, you're just calling attention to the fact that they do not know; whereas calling someone tone-deaf implies they're incapable of understanding.

  • 2
    I take this as the better answer because it emphasises the person's awareness of subtle differences in the subject matter rather than differences that relate to the audience. Someone who is literally tone deaf is tone deaf towards the music regardless of how the audience might react to the tone-deaf musician's music. To be tone-deaf metaphorically does not imply out of tune with the audience/readers/viewers but out of tune with the subject matter. – MattClarke Jun 13 '14 at 4:08

It means something like "not being aware of the mood or sensitivities of your listeners".

In the linked case, a wealthy public figure is complaining about money problems, when lots of ordinary people are having genuine money problems. The opposite of being "in tune with" her listeners, you might say.

Used literally, tone-deaf denotes a kind of insensitivity, insensitivity to musical pitch (M-W). Used metaphorically as in the linked op-ed, it denotes a gross insensitivity to how a remark or complaint is likely to strike, and offend, an important segment of its likely audience. (And today the likelihood that a politician’s comment will reach an audience that he or she does not intend for it is higher than ever.)

  • I would have picked this as the best answer. "Gross" insensitivity is key here. Unless you are "a little tone deaf" or using a similar phrase, it means completely insensitive to other people's ideas or opinions. – markspace May 28 '15 at 3:11

In the usual sense, "tone deaf" refers to musical insensitivity.

In the metaphorical sense, "tone deaf" refers to social (or socio-economic) insensitivity.

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