Subjective Words: Are You Communicating Reality?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fifth Agreement" by Don Miguel Ruiz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do we communicate when we use subjective words? Are we conveying reality or merely our perception of it?

Subjective words do not convey objective reality. Like everyone else, you use subjective words to convey what you believe to be true. However, your beliefs—just like your perceptions—are subjective. These are the assertions of authors don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz, who further argue that linguistic subjectivity—and our blind acceptance of subjective beliefs as concrete facts—are at the root of our unhappiness.

Read more to learn how we communicate with subjective words and what impact that has.

Subjective Words Convey Subjective Beliefs

Authors don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz (also known as the naguals) argue that our beliefs—and the languages we use to codify and communicate them—are also subjective. Because our perceptions are subjective, they say, we each have our own ideas about how people should live, what the things we perceive mean, and what’s right or wrong. These beliefs aren’t universal, but many of us still assume that the ones we hold are factually correct. When we communicate, then, we tend to use subjective words.

(Shortform note: Indeed, the more correct we think our beliefs are, the more likely it is we’re mistaken. A 2018 study discovered that the more certain people are that their view of a topic is correct, the less they tend to know about it. In short, once we’re convinced that we “know” something, we stop trying to learn more about it.)

We use language to conceptualize and describe those beliefs, so our words carry preconceived notions about what is true, what is good, and what is bad. The naguals believe that, as a result, when we communicate with each other, we describe our subjective reality in subjective terms. In other words, we use subjective words. Two people can hear the same words and interpret them differently.

For example, “water” can be a subjective word. Each language has its own name for water, and that name carries additional meanings and implications depending on the circumstances and beliefs of the people who named it. Those people might feel that water is sacred, that it has spiritual significance—or that it’s a resource to be tapped, a danger to be avoided, and so on. In short, the meanings words carry are beliefs—and they’re as subjective as our perceptions.

Scientists Agree: Language Shapes Belief

Modern science supports the authors’ claim that the language we use reflects and shapes our fundamental beliefs about the world. For example, linguistic researchers have discovered that people who speak different languages have different beliefs about blame and punishment in the case of accidents. If an English speaker witnesses someone accidentally knock over a vase, they’ll likely say, “He broke the vase.” On the other hand, if a Spanish speaker witnesses the same event, they’re more likely to say, “The vase broke.” 

As a result of these different constructions, the English-speaking witness will remember more details about the man who broke the vase and assign more blame (and, consequently, punishment) to him, whereas the Spanish-speaking witness will treat the incident as a pure accident. In this way, the subjective words people use impact their beliefs about the situation—just as the Ruizes describe.

Learning Language Means Learning Unhappiness

The naguals explain that this linguistic subjectivity—and our blind acceptance of subjective beliefs as concrete facts—is the source of our unhappiness. As children, the naguals say, we’re happy because we’re not yet programmed by language to believe certain things. Instead, we accept the reality we perceive for what it is, innocently and without judgment. We don’t have meanings, morals, and expectations assigned to our perceptions. The authors assert that, it’s not until we learn language that we begin to distinguish between male and female, good and bad, or clever and stupid. We just see what is and accept it as given. We’re free to be whatever we are, because we’ve yet to learn it’s possible for us to be “wrong.”

(Shortform note: As the Ruizes note, it’s impossible for children to think critically about what they learn. By the time we’ve acquired the majority of our first language—before the age of six—we’re still a few years away from being able to think logically. Further, the kind of abstract thinking required to analyze and evaluate a culturally-conveyed value like sexism doesn’t even begin to develop until age 11—and the part of the brain that handles it doesn’t fully develop until age 25. In short, we spend a long time thoughtlessly believing claims we accept at face value—and being miserable because of it.)

As we learn language—internalizing our culture’s values and beliefs—we’re disconnected from that childish freedom. We become unhappy, the authors say, because we learn the meaning of words like bad, imperfect, and ugly, and accept the implication that we can be those things. We accept, if our teachers tell us this is true—that women should be subservient, that men must be strong, that hairstyles are gender-restricted, and so on. 

(Shortform note: One of the easiest—and therefore most popular—ways to research the effects of cultural messaging on our happiness is to study the differences between people who do and don’t watch TV. Many studies have found, for instance, that watching a lot of TV leads to an increase in self-objectification and body-shaming as well as decreased trust in other people and society as a whole. It’s not the TV itself that’s causing this—it’s the fact that we compare ourselves to the people on TV and find ourselves lacking.)

As we become more aware when we are using or hearing subjective words, we will be more likely to discern reality and communicate effectively.

Subjective Words: Are You Communicating Reality?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Fifth Agreement summary :

  • The five “agreements” to make with yourself that adjust your outlook
  • How to rediscover your true self and recapture the freedom you felt as a child
  • A five-step process to escape the mirage of “the real world”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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