The Fine Art of Nuance

We live in a binary world – a stark and shrinking world — of on-off, yes-no, black-white, good-bad, and left-right. Thinking this way is easy, some might say effortless. But falling into a binary mindset can be dangerous when we’re trying to communicate with others to resolve serious issues.

Nuance is strictly defined as “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.” I’m sure you’ve heard of “shades of gray,” which is a nuance associated with black and white.

Seeing and articulating nuance is key to being human and to functioning in the world around us; it is a vital skill to develop. Unfortunately, “nuancing” is a skill that has deteriorated over the past several years. You can see the result of this playing out everywhere:  social media, the political arena, relationships, and the workplace. I’m not saying mass shootings or divorce rates are directly related to fewer nuances. I’m saying that when we see things entirely one way or the other, we limit our options to make wise choices.

Nuances Affect Compromising and Cooperating

I blame our lack of nuancing for the decline in compromises. We forget that, while I might disagree with the basic premise you’re expressing, I can see benefits to some of your ideas. Also, our disagreement doesn’t make one of us right and the other wrong or vice versa.

There are no compromises in black and white, but compromises and cooperation abound in the gray. Take politics. In order to compromise on a solution that benefits the greater good, each party must acknowledge the nuances that exist between us.  When we allow black and white choices to dictate as the best solution for all, everyone loses.   

On a personal level, if we’re known only as one extreme, it’s unlikely we’ll be approached to cooperate with others in seeking solutions that work for the masses. We make ourselves more popular and more useful if we can see a range of possibilities. That said, watch out for individuals who take pains to appear as though they’re seeking compromise and cooperation, but actually, just want their own way. They typically present only black and white options “for the sake of efficiency.“


We’ve become increasingly hardwired to accept black or white as the only viable solution. Do one thing wrong and many will judge your entire character based on that one event. We all know what it feels like to be deprived of the benefit of a doubt. That works both ways. “You’re a Democrat (or Republican), so I despise everything you stand for and, by the way, you’re stupid and selfish too!” We’ve all experienced that feeling (but hopefully not put such a limitation forth to others). 

Without nuance we don’t see the vivid, pinkish-purple hues of the night sky as the setting sun reflects off lingering clouds. We see the sun up or down. Without nuances we don’t see humans as different from each other in a thousand different ways. We see them as “agin’ us” or “afor’ us.” And remember, technology doesn’t support nuances, whether in the form of social media, text messages, or e-mails. Nuance is found in the eyes and in the smile (or lack thereof); it’s in the way a person is in the world. 

Why Limit Yourself?

I hope you take this information and internalize it. See where the extremes fail you in how you see the world or in how you make choices that affect your future. You can’t control the actions of others, but you can let your nuances express your openness to the greatest possibility for solutions that work for us all rather than for just one person or party. Practice embracing more points of view; consider whether there’s more than one way to do something. See the middle ground.

Above all, don’t limit yourself and don’t limit others. Look for the nuances while cultivating your own.