Listen to the audio version of this post here.
There’s been a lot of black-and-white lately. I don’t mean racial rhetoric, although there’s been plenty of that too, in a campaign season that included demands for racial justice, demands to defund police and threats about upending suburban life, among other things.
No, when I say black-and-white, I’m talking about the polarization that has characterized the presidential campaign from the get-go. The name-calling, the insults, the insistence that the other guy is not only wrong, he should be jailed for it.
With election day behind us, I’m wondering how we can get back to being able to talk — and listen! — to the people on the “other” side. Is it even possible to find a middle ground after all this?
It made me think of that time I was grappling with literal shades of gray. It’s worth a look back at what I wrote about that…
They say the human eye can distinguish 500 shades of gray. I’ve seen at least 473 of them in the past few days.
Frank and I are picking paint for a much-needed home refresh. And since Frank’s choice is almost always, “Whatever you say, Princess,” I have a decision to make. It’s not black and white, of course. It’s gray. The question is, which gray?
Turns out a lot of decision-making in business and in life is mirrored in the pursuit of the perfect paint.
It’s all about your perspective.
Look at things from one angle and they’re absolutely perfect. Change your point of view, and suddenly you reach a different conclusion.
That gorgeous gray I saw a minute ago just turned the color of the muddy Mississippi River. It’s smart to look at every angle before you reach a decision. And shining a light on it can change everything.
Same paint, different wall? The appearance changes drastically. Cloudy skies…bright sunshine…a lamp turned on at night? These can’t be the same shade of gray, can they?
The oak woodwork, the turquoise couch, the jewel tones in the Chinese rug…everything around it influences the way we see that gray. Even the shade of white already on the walls affects our perception of the new hue.
Maybe we can’t consider a swath of paint—or anything else—in isolation. It’s wise to take into account all the other things that influence our impressions.
Research makes a difference.
In my first pass at the paint chips, I picked a couple colors I liked. Ran them by Frank (you know what he said) and declared the choice made. Then, on the advice of people who know way more than I do, I picked up some sample cans, put that gray paint on the walls…and saw purple.
Now, I wear purple often. I write with purple Pentel pens. For years, I drove a purple car. I like purple. But I don’t want purple all over our house.
What did I learn from the purple paint? Going with my gut works for me often. And sometimes there’s a better way to reach a decision. It involves time and deliberation and, yes, research.
I read up on undertones and finishes and LRVs. (Light Reflectance Value measures the percentage of light a paint color reflects; of course, that has an impact on how you “see” the color and how you feel in the room.)
Understanding even a little bit about the impact colors can have set me up for a more productive trip to the paint store.
What’s under the surface?
Those paint chips I was looking at—they were all gray. And every last one of them had an undertone that made its particular gray different from all the other grays. The undertones were blue, red, yellow, even purple or green. A gray with a blue undertone looks nothing like a gray with a yellow undertone.
Of course, the idea of an underlying quality or feeling applies to more than color theory. When it comes to conversation, we might notice the sexual undertone of an exchange. Or the racist undertone of a political speech. Direction from the boss could have a threatening undertone. We derive meaning not just from the words but from the tone and the undertone.
Whether it’s a look or a sound, the undertone has an impact. Take the time to go deeper, and you may find that your first interpretation was superficial. Or just plain wrong.
Look beyond the label.
Research led me to three new grays; I brought sample cans home and put them on the walls. Funny what a difference even a semi-informed decision can make. To tell you the truth, I could probably live with any of these colors.
Now that I’ve settled in with them, I’m ditching Abalone. Its red undertone takes it toward taupe. And I’m reluctantly passing on Silver Lining. I love the name—the idea of Silver Lining for our house makes my heart sing. Sadly, it looks blue in the sunlight.
Smack in the middle, with both blue and red undertones and the ideal LRV: Cement Gray. It’ll be perfect, I’m sure, in spite of its less-than-poetic name. And I’m still sorry I can’t go with Silver Lining.
And that makes me ponder how often I’ve bought something because its label attracted me. Or passed up a product that would be perfect, but I didn’t recognize it because it had a lame name. It makes me sound embarrassingly superficial, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Smart marketers know they can get us with the right name.
And when we’re the ones doing the marketing, we’d best take care to choose our words carefully. They can’t judge a book by its cover, but if the cover is all they have to go on, it’ll have an impact. Our job is to make that impact a positive one.
There you have it. Lessons from the pursuit of the perfect paint. Maybe you’ve had some experience with undertones that took you by surprise. Or you looked past the label and liked what you saw.
Post a comment below and share your shades-of-gray experience.
And if you have an idea how to mend the fences we’ve erected during the long slog to the election, I’d love to hear about that too!
Simultaneous contrast in color and in life.
Been there, done that with paint and love the analogy. Understand the labeling appeal as well and have experienced its power. But the election? I’m still feeling very black and white about that, despite efforts to see the shades of gray. Still hopeful it will turn out the way I (and all other rational people????) think it should but, if forced, I will look for new sources of light …. Have you ever tried to find the perfect degree of warmth or CRI? It’s much like the paint quest but with fewer options and they have a huge impact on each other. It’s complicated …. like people and this election.
Thank you Catherine!
CRI is a new one on me, Linda. Now that I know it stands for Color Rendering Index, I see that you’re right. It IS complicated.
The shades of gray are hardest to see when it comes to people and issues that evoke strong feelings. And that’s when it’s most important to at least make the effort to see them, even though I often fall short.
Yes to new sources of light! I’m not sure where they’ll turn up I am pretty confident they’re out there somewhere.
I loved the article. Great read! I am sitting here at 8.30 am Wednesday and there is still not a president elected. But we are not talking about politics but paints and they definitely have something in common. You pick one and it looks like something else! Getting back to the paints. I definitely picked mine because of the name …. I wanted an off-white because I like the colors in the paintings, furniture and rugs. I picked “Polar Bear.”
Enjoy the rest of your day!
“Polar Bear” — I love that, Birgitte! Somehow it seems perfect for you. And you’re right, politics and paint do have something in common. The names can be misleading. The context makes a difference. And undertones have an impact, whether we’re conscious of them or not. I’m wishing for all of us to stay savvy about those factors.
Perfect article for this time Catherine. Six years ago, in my book “From Type A to Type Me” I included much discussion about the pain of black-and-white thinking and how peace is found in seeing and being in the gray. This past year has introduced me to the concept of non-duality which is really the core of many of our social issues these days. People want safety and believe they find safety in clear-cut, black-and-white thinking. However, as long as we think in right-wrong and us-them, we will be stuck in confrontation and aggression. Peace, understanding, and community arise from non-dual thinking. Wishing you peace.
Thanks, Melissa. Yes to non-duality! I may search for some other metaphors that illuminate the idea.
If you find another metaphor, let me know. The shades of gray between solid black and white do such a wonderful job of showing us the playground of non-duality. Not sure if there is a better way to show it. However we say it, as individuals and a society, we need to learn that nothing, no issue is simply two-sided. Everything in life has variation.
Your writing makes my heart sing! Your perspective, as always, makes us think broader and deeper – to consider what we often miss. Be it paint colors or politics or any topic, your wisdom spiced with candor and wit is exactly what we need. I think you should consider speech writing! Could the landscape of future elections be different if we had the likes of Catherine Johns influencing the power and presence of true political punch in a persuasive speech? That gets my vote!
I love the idea, Kelly, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be in much demand as a speechwriter. Years ago my WLS co-anchor, Jim Johnson, and I promised each other we’d never go into politics. It would be put one of us on the spot because we knew too much about the other’s dirty laundry.
Thanks for your assessment of my writing — coming from an actual writer, that is a huge compliment!