Words, Context, and Nuance — and one Particular, Natural Talent that Goes Missing on Social Media

Recently, I saw an online meme saying: “The opposite of judgement is understanding.” And someone commented, “What about acceptance?”, to which the poster replied, “I can understand without accepting.”

I was about to reply, “I can understand and still judge” — but then I realised the ensuing discussion would require so much unpacking that I didn’t really have the time for it, much less in the social media format. I wanted to expand on it, though, and I find it is about words. Or, more correctly, about words, context, and the ever-present appreciation and interpretation of nuances which come quite naturally to most people in real-life situations, but so easily go missing in online settings.

So, bear with me. It is not really about that particular meme, obviously. It just makes a good illustration — because basically, we can read the words in it in two different ways, with two sets of eyes, as it were. Reading with the first set of eyes, we read from a kind of quantitative perspective, looking for hard definitions, and aiming to suss out differences of opinion. This is a very reasonable perspective, considering the statement of fact that the meme technically is. When we approach the words that way, we find all the ways where “understanding” is indeed not the opposite of “judgement”. We might think of someone who has done something despicable, and who has since provided an explanation (or excuse) for their behaviour which we can fully logically grasp, but which we do not agree with and consider, well, despicable. So we understand — as in, it computes. And we still judge. Ergo, the meme doesn’t make sense.

Looking to connect rather than divide

Reading the words with the other set of eyes, we approach them differently. We understand that whoever wrote them want to make us notice something, which they expressed by holding up understanding as an opposite to judgement — and so we turn inwards, with a perspective that goes something like, If understanding is the opposite of judgement, what kind of understanding are we then talking about? We realise that there are multiple interpretations of this word; it doesn’t only mean that something makes rational sense, head-wise. It could also mean something more heart-related, which we, for lack of a better term, might call “truly understanding”. This is understanding in a way that looks to connect rather than divide (which does not mean to disregard facts or turn blind eyes to disagreements — but it does mean wanting to first establish which seeming disagreements are in fact such, and which are merely about interpretation).

This set of eyes don’t settle for the quick-on-the-draw, battlefield perspective where the one-single-definition interpretation is the correct one — albeit unpalatable (not to mention, possibly not the one intended). This set of eyes stretches deeper, into the compassion of the heart — not because we are soft, or because we want to agree with everyone, but because we wish to truly understand. This is an understanding anchored on the inside, where we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but perhaps with a sense of compassion that they themselves lack, for themselves or others. This is a different way to read the word “understanding” — and it is, indeed, the opposite of judgement.

Interpretation and nuance

My point is not that one interpretation of the word is correct whereas the other is not. My point is that words have nuances, and moreover, that they need nuances for our language to be useful. I suppose some people would argue that words are supposed to be nuance-free and have absolute definitions. I think, however, that if we were suddenly thrust into a world where this were the case, we’d soon be enormously frustrated. We all rely, and language itself relies, on these nuances more heavily than we realise. It’s just that sometimes something within us seems to be in the mood for controversy and stubbornly refuses to play along, so that we can have something to argue about. And other times, it might be insecurities that have us reaching for absolutes, scared of any ambiguity that might leave us wrong-footed. Whichever is the case, though, the defended stance of the first set of eyes makes it hard to communicate efficiently.

Words in the Enneagram world

Now let’s move this whole dynamic into the Enneagram world, where a lot of the time we are attempting to describe, or understand, different categories. Our current times call for snippets, sound-bites, memes, and lists — and so all those things are produced, either in efforts to distinguish yourself as a teacher, or to make descriptions easily digestible, or just to inform. In one list, we might read that Threes compare themselves to others a lot. In another, we read that Fours are the masters of comparison, inevitably raising discussion about who is right and who is wrong. In one meme, connection is used to describe aspects of the sexual instinct; in another context, the same word is used in the description of social adaptation, possibly accompanied by a contemptuous sneer in the general direction of anyone using it in the former way. And so on and so forth. And this happens in an online climate, where response-times are short, tempers run high, people compete to be “right”, and the old-fashioned, heart-informed set of eyes is not the norm.

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to understand?”

The old question, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” springs to mind, only with a slight twist. Because to a large extent I think it is our urge to “be right” that trips up the curiosity that might have otherwise lead to actual understanding; true communication, target than just "talking at" each other.

When we come across seemingly opposing statements, it is wise to remember that neither is necessarily wrong. (Obviously, we might encounter stuff that is incorrect, so it’s not that everything we see online is valid. But neither are seemingly opposite teachings necessarily mutually exclusive.)

Back to the old mantra: Let it percolate 

And most of all, we need to keep in mind that none of this, if we want to understand it in a way that is truly useful, can be learned through memes, or lists of attributes. That integration takes time. That words, while the primary tool for sharing this information, will only be helpful to the extent that we can hear them in context — and that this context might not be fully developed within us yet. (And sure, in a lot of cases, is not really provided in the context where we find the information, so we might have to go in search of it ourselves.)

As it happens, I actually wrote a blog article a couple of years ago about the use of “comparison” as a descriptor for Threes/Fours, specifically, which you can find here. Also, I’m planning one on the concept of connection when discussing the instinctual drives. Over and over, I find myself drawn to making these distinctions, providing these contexts to the best of my ability, easing unhelpful discord, and directing our attention back towards truly learning something, rather than just debating language. To me, that is when we can understand, deeply and in all three centres of intelligence, what type, instinct and other such features even are. And it is only then that the Enneagram starts becomes truly helpful ❤️