Tone-deaf, in the figurative sense, refers to saying something without considering how it will land with your audience:

Wishing your vegetarian colleagues in Mumbai "Happy Turkey Day!" came off as a little tone-deaf.

However, in these politically correct times, the expression may cause offence to people with actual hearing loss and is apparently best avoided. Is there a good alternative that would work in the phrase above? (Words or short phrases are both fine.)

A couple of synonym sites I consulted were not very helpful: synonym.com offers "deaf" as a synonym (uh, no), Wiktionary offers "out of touch" (better, but not quite?) and most other major thesauruses don't seem to have it.

And a final vain plea: let's please try to avoid the discussion of whether this expression actually is or "should" be considered non-PC.

  • 7
    At the risk of offending pianos and whatnot, how about off-key? Jan 29, 2020 at 3:37
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    "tone-deaf" is nothing to do with hearing loss. It's to do with being unable to differentiate musical notes, while still having normal hearing.
    – AndyT
    Jan 29, 2020 at 10:19
  • 4
    So saying "tone deaf" is tone deaf?
    – nnnnnn
    Jan 29, 2020 at 10:21
  • 1
    The point of the expression is more missing the underlying meaning of your own words, rather than missing how it will land with your audience. The end result, though, is that your audience understands what you yourself did not intend -- but the harm is done. Jan 29, 2020 at 19:14
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    Tone-deaf is used for people that don't understand musical forms and cannot reproduce an exact frequency when singing. It’s an ability that their brain does not have, much like for colorblind people. (I am colorblind myself, so no offense to anyone.) One typical application of it would be in karaoke.
    – Iman Nia
    Feb 4, 2020 at 12:10

6 Answers 6


It’s insensitive. See for example these headlines:

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    To me, "insensitive" has a nuance of being possibly intentional, whereas "tone-deaf" makes it clear the perpetrator is just oblivious? Jan 29, 2020 at 2:24
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    And interestingly, that 2nd link says "hearing impaired" is inappropriate, while "(person who is) deaf" is fine. Jan 29, 2020 at 5:26
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    I don't think "insensitive" carries the connotations of being intentional: the meaning of being insensitive is that you're unaware or unthinking of causing offence. "Insensitive" fits in situations where you should have been aware, but that's different to being intentional.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 4, 2020 at 12:39

You could say it was a “faux pas“ or a “gaffe” because it was a socially awkward blunder. You could describe the remark as “gauche” or, a bit less harshly, as “clumsy.”

If you’re particularly looking to describe the person, not the action, you could call them “careless,” “thoughtless,” “inconsiderate,” or “graceless.”


"Out of tune" is a possible alternative, one which isn't quite as negative as "insensitive".


Tactless also is from music but doesn't carry an offensive overtone.

having no tact; unaware or intentionally inconsiderate of someone else's feelings


Obtuse may work, as it can refer to insensitivity as well as the lack of wit or smarts of someone who demonstrates such insensitivity. Merriam-Webster:

2a : lacking sharpness or quickness of sensibility or intellect : insensitive, stupid

He is too obtuse to take a hint.

So to include that in your present example, obtuse would describe someone not realizing how "Happy Turkey Day" does not fit what a vegetarian who doesn't even celebrate Thanksgiving might know:

Wishing your vegetarian colleagues in Mumbai "Happy Turkey Day!" came off as a little obtuse.


You could say:

Wishing your vegetarian colleagues in Mumbai "Happy Turkey Day!" is not very au fait.

au fait

To be familiar with or know something


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