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Should We Be Typing Famous People?

I have a lot of energy for this blog about both the value and problems with typing famous people, individuals who are in the public zone. By famous, I’m referring to people we don’t know personally who are public figures because we see them on TV or in the movies and read about them. They are celebrities of some sort – for example, politicians, athletes, and entertainers, among others.

Here are my basic propositions:
·       It is impossible for us to know the type of a public figure with any degree of certitude
·       To think that we can do the above – type a public figure with certainty – is both arrogant and dangerous
·       Typing public figures is more complicated than typing non-public figures because they often have a public persona that may be very different from who they really are
·       Typing public figures has some value
·       Whether typing public figures has value or not, we seem to keep doing it, so we should do so with humility and self-reflection

Now, more detail on each proposition:

It is impossible for us to know the type of a public figure with any degree of certitude
We know – or should know – that Enneatype is character, not behavior, and a person’s Enneagram style is determined by their internal motivational structure and drives, not by their explicit behavior. With public figures, what we primarily see, hear, or read about is their behavior, not their motivation. Although there are some public figures who either write or talk about their motivations with a great deal of self-awareness and honesty – so this may be useful information in formulating a hypothesis about the individual’s type – these are among the very few. Biographers of public figures are no better; additionally, they are one step removed from the real person and susceptible to inferring motivation from behavior, and these inferences can be wrong.  Many people who know the Enneagram well will say that they are still trying to figure out the type of one of their immediate family members. With family, we may be too close; with public figures, too far.

To think that we can do the above – type a public figure with certainty – is both arrogant and dangerous
I hear some Enneagram teachers and Enneagrammers say they know the type of a public figure and either explicitly say they are certain of this or imply that they are “in the know.”

As a case in point, I want to discuss the typing of Barack Obama. I think he is a social subtype 9, but I cannot be sure. I have good reasons for thinking so, having read all his books, which are self-revealing, watching his non-verbal behavior countless times, and talking with people who have known him for 20+ years and who know the Enneagram. But, am I correct? I don’t know. I do have reasons that go beyond his biography as told by others or by making assumptions about why he does what he does. But I know I could be wrong.

There are times when I get Facebook or YouTube messages from people I don’t know about Obama. One person said: “He’s a 3w4, no doubt!” to which I responded, “There is always doubt.” Another person wrote, “Obama can’t be a 9 because 9s are fat and lazy.” I didn’t even respond to this comment because it is such an insulting and misguided way of understanding 9s.

And then there’s a wonderful phone discussion I had with Don Riso about Obama. Don thinks Obama is a 3, and he has good reasons for this. I love good reasons! I have good reasons for thinking Obama is a 9. Don was just as interested in my reasons as I was in his. I didn’t change Don’s mind, nor he mine, but the conversation was stimulating. And we could both be wrong, because we don’t know Obama.

Why is typing public figures (with such certainty) so dangerous? If we’re Enneagram teachers, what message does this give to those who learn from us? The message is this:  It is OK to type public figures and act as if you are completely correct, almost a rite of passage into some non-existent level of Enneagram expertise. In my opinion, it makes a caricature or game out of the Enneagram, sets up a false hierarchy of Enneagram expertise, and makes the Enneagram’s accuracy come into question. How can three different Enneagram teachers not agree on Oprah Winfrey’s type? The answer: we don’t know her and we’re looking at different things.

Some may say, well, you list some names of public figures in your coaching book, iPhone App, or in your blogs, and this is true. I did so with a great deal of thought behind it and made an effort to not be definitive. In my coaching book, I use two quotes from each individual to reflect my choice of placement. So even if I’m wrong about their types (and I may be), at least the quotations do reflect something a person of that type would say. In my blogs on communication styles by type, I include video interviews of each person named, YouTube clips that are quite compelling, and I try to use non-definitive words when describing that person’s type.

Typing public figures is more complicated than typing non-public figures because they often have a public persona that may be very different from who they really are
Really, there is not much more to say about this other than the obvious. Most public figures have had a great deal of coaching on their public personas –­ acting coaches, voice and media consultants, and handlers who limit their public comments. This makes it even harder to ”judge the book by its cover.”

Typing public figures has some value
This may sound surprising given all of the above comments, but there is a value. Having public exemplars of each type can help newcomers to the Enneagram anchor or remember the 9 types better; although this only works if the public figures are typed correctly. However, even if the famous person’s type is accurate, we each have a predominant subtype. An exemplar who is accurately typed may be a better example of a subtype of that type than the type itself, and this can mislead or confuse those who want to learn about the Enneatypes.

The other value of typing famous people is that it helps us practice and refine our typing skills. When we first learn the Enneagram, we often go around typing everybody (even our animals). It is a way of learning, but at least most people know they are in the realm of speculation. The problem comes when we think we can accurately type people we don’t even know (and even those we do).

Whether typing public figures has value or not, we seem to keep doing it so let’s do it with humility and self-reflection
I am going to suggest three ideas:
·       If you go around typing others and especially with certitude, ask yourself why you need to do this. Do you need to be right or certain? Are you trying to elevate yourself in some way? Are you using it to promote business even though you really know you can’t be sure?
·       If you and another disagree about a famous person’s type, can you engage in discourse about your differing views rather than putting the other person down for being so ignorant? Can you actually listen to another’s point of view and even be influenced by it? Or, are you so sure you’re right?
·       Do you go around typing others all the time? Have you ever wondered why you need to do this? Have you ever considered that this may create an invisible barrier between you and the other person, one that can keep you from really making contact with him or her?

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Mary Bast
11 years ago

Thanks, Ginger — we needed this well- considered, well-said, and thought-provoking commentary. The diversity in typing alone could turn off prospective Enneagram enthusiasts; trying to guess Obama’s Enneagram style is a good case in point. I agree with you, by the way. But I don’t know him, either.

11 years ago

Thanks, Mary. This has been tumbling around inside me for a long time now, so I decided to go for it! I’m happy you perceive this as such a serious (and complex) issue as I do!

Martin Q
Martin Q
11 years ago

Yes it is a natural thing to do and it is fun and entertaining to have discussions on contrary views on this topic. I say this as I am strongly opposed to “telling” people what they are even when I know them. However I notice myself typing well known people or celebrities all the time! So as long as we see it for what it i.e. natural, fun, or an interesting exercise to see how others view people and not take it seriously I am all for it!

11 years ago

Ginger, I agree. When I am exploring the Enneagram concepts with teams that are new to it, having a few “Public Figures” and organizations that may “characterize” the strengths and delimiters of the nine types is helpful for new folks to see that types do exist, and to see themselves more easily as a type. I do always explain that behaviors can look the same accross types and that motivations are what we often cannot know about public figures which people understand. Also, folks do seem to understand then that it is a way to “show what a given type… Read more »

Hilary Langford
Hilary Langford
11 years ago

Thanks for this thoughtful, well-reasoned comment, Ginger! We have at least one Enneagram teacher in our country who continually types public people (with total certainty!) and also (supposedly) types people within seconds of meeting them. It certainly creates great confusion, uncertainty, and goes entirely against the value gained as we find (and own) our place in this amazing system.
Thanks for your contribution!

Hilary Langford

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