The Problem With Profiles

Let’s start with this: every writer needs to be aware of their audience. If you are writing an Enneagram self-help book in America in 2022, for example, you can safely assume that nobody reading your book was born in the 1700s. You can also assume that they are not space pirates from the year 3076, or an alien trying to pass as human during the Cold War, or a unicorn in King Arthur’s menagerie. In one sense, I can make those assumptions, but in another sense, I very much can’t. My target audience is writers, and they may be reading the profiles from the imagined perspective of one of their characters. Who am I to assume that character isn’t a talking cat whose best friend is a sentient cactus? (Are you writing that story? If so, I want to read it.)

Then there are the subtler assumptions, which are a little more uncomfortable to talk about. I have an Enneagram book, written in the 1980s by a respected psychologist, which discusses how different types express their sexuality and gender expression. In some sections, the author makes sure to reassure their audience that of course, none of those interviewed were actually homosexual. Was that true? Or were their clients closeted, and uncomfortable revealing their true orientations? Was the author outright lying to protect their clients and their own credibility? I don’t know. All I know is that this book was published at the height of the AIDs crisis and LGBTQ acceptance wasn’t where it is today, and one way or another, that distorted this book’s discussion of gender. Another book, published more recently, gave each type a list of recommended essential oils, suggested career paths (all of which required at least a bachelor’s degree) and included a lot of advice like, “blow off work for a day, your type often needs a break” or “take a real vacation with your family.” This told me that people below the poverty line were not part of the author’s target audience.

There is nothing wrong with this kind of thing when you are honest about it. If you know your target audience is college students or mothers or Christians or New-Age millennials or the queer community, and you market it that way, that’s just being smart. It’s also great to admit that, while you have tried to be inclusive, your experience includes more members of some group than another. That humility opens up an opportunity for deeper discussions. What bothers me is when a large part of the world is cut out, and the author speaks as though they really think their highly specific description is universally applicable.

That said, I have to admit this approach has some practical advantages.

For example, take the approach of, “this type can look like this other type when…” Social Fives can look like Threes. Unhealthy Twos can look like Eights. Self-preservation Fours can be mistaken for Sevens. Etc, etc, etc. These all reinforce the idea that there is one “look” for each type that is the real one, and the others are that true type in disguise. This is a handy shortcut, and I understand why people use it. The problem is that it quickly starts encouraging stereotypes about the types, and those types invariably cast the upper middle class white straight American as the Official Normal Person. This happens even with authors who reinforce diversity in their panels and client base: LGBTQ people and people of color may be represented, but they are typically invited to describe how they are different from the “standard” for the type. A Two is not more or less a Two based on their subtype, wing or level of health, and they definitely aren’t less of a Two because they are financially disadvantaged, or queer, or a Sri Lankan who immigrated to Paris when they were twelve. Good writers do not start with an “Official Normal Person” and then measure how far their protagonist has deviated from that standard. They know that every character is normal, from their own perspective. Normal, frankly, is an illusion.

For me, as a writer and writing teacher, the stories I am most excited to support are the ones that push our collective understanding of human nature. People often analyze stories as if they are instructional manuals for life, and I think that’s rarely how real people read. More often, they are gyms for our collective empathy. They exercise our ability to understand the life of another human being (or talking cat). Hopefully, we go on to use that empathy to become better people.

As a result, I have tried to treat the descriptions of types like the definition of a triangle. There is no universal triangle. Any polygon with three sides and three angles is a triangle, whether it is right angled, equilateral, drawn in purple crayon, cut from a piece of paper, made with bricks as the border of a garden bed, etc. Similarly, there are basic elements that make up all Nines, but there is no one Nine who is more Nine than any other. And if I accidentally describe a Nine who is more specific than that, I will try to correct that as soon as I can, because I, too, have my own point of view in this world, and my own blind spots.

As always, thank you for reading. Happy writing!

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