Discerning vs. Snobbish

A week or so ago, an interaction I had with a friend got me to thinking about the important difference between being discerning and being a snob. And there is a difference.

Here’s how the basic interaction went down:

Me (responding to a different friend who was making communal pots of tea, who asked what kind of tea I like to drink): Well, I drink mostly green tea, but no need to make any just for me, I brought my own.

Friend (standing nearby in ear shot): You brought you own huh?

Me: Yeah, I found this great loose leaf green tea online that I order from Ten Tea and I really like it. So I decided to bring it along with me today.

Friend (playfully stated): Oh, so you’re a tea snob?

Me: Well, no. I would say that I am discerning.

Friend (again, playfully stated): Oh, is that how you rationalize it?

Me: Well, no. I don’t think being discerning and being a snob are the same thing.

Words matter. And the words ‘discerning’ and ‘snob’ are not synonymous or interchangeable. It’s not the action that matters nearly as much as the motivation and energy behind it. It’s not the what, it’s the why.

On dictionary.com, it defines the word ‘discerning’ as: showing good or outstanding judgment and understanding. And it defines the word ‘snob’ as: a person who imitates, cultivates, or slavishly admires social superiors and is condescending or overbearing to others.

Nope. Definitely not the same thing.

Let’s unpack this a little bit more.

I’ll use a foodie as an example. As a frame of reference, the definition for ‘foodie’ is: a person keenly interested in food, especially in eating or cooking.

The reality exists for a foodie to be someone who is either discerning or snobbish. And their actions might even look the same. The difference between a discerning foodie and a foodie snob involves what they’re being fueled and propelled by. Their intentions are different; their internal landscapes are different; their energy is different. A foodie who is discerning, doesn’t make others feel like crap for being who they are. When you meet a foodie snob, it’s likely that if you share a meal or talk about food with them, you’ll come away feeling deflated in some way, as though you’ve done something, felt something, or were something wrong.

So, a big part of knowing how to tell the difference between being discerning and being a snob – whether it’s in regard to our own self or others – is to tune into how we’re feeling. Is our energy flowing (open) or is it constricted (closed)? Are we coming from a place of openness and a want to connect or are we coming from a place of judgement and separation? Do we feel good or do we feel bad?

I remember a time when a friend was asking me about my path as a vegetarian. I explained to her that my story in becoming a vegetarian is rather an uncommon one in that my decision wasn’t based on any sort of ethical or environmental stance. I became a vegetarian at age 12 literally because it was different than the norm and it sounded cool – and then for whatever reason, it just stuck and became my way of life. For a little more info, that I didn’t share with my friend: It wasn’t something – and still isn’t something – that I think very much about. I also have zero judgement when it comes to those who eat meat. And in rare vegetarian accord, I regularly purchase and cook meat for my husband, which I have no problem with. I take pride in being the sort of vegetarian who isn’t snobbish about it, putting down everyone in my wake for continuing to be an omnivore. I have no interest in being that kind of vegetarian. Personally, I have more work to do around not having judgements against other vegetarians and vegans than I do with meat eaters.

Knowing I was a practitioner in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, my friend then asked when vegetarianism became an ethical matter for me, to which I replied: I’m not sure it has. Another friend (who was a vegan) then chimed in and asked: But as an OI member, how do you reconcile with not being a vegan? I sensed an air of judgement in the tonal quality of her voice right away – it was subtle but it was there. I could see tension in her body and on her face as she posed the question. And I could feel her disapproval in my own body – and it didn’t feel good. I took a moment before answering, in an effort not to match her energy, and said something to the effect of: Well, Thay doesn’t require OI members to be vegans, though it is becoming more encouraged. And technically, we’re not required to be vegetarians, either. Our main job description as OI members is to build sangha.

There are at least two ways I can be a vegetarian. I can be a discerning vegetarian sans judgement of others, or I can be a vegetarian snob who feels self-righteous that my way is the better/best way.

No one likes being judged, period. Sure, we all do it – it’s unavoidable. But we can invest intentional practice into noticing when the energy of judgement comes up, so that we are then able to tend well to it and try our best not to have it negatively impact others. Awareness is key. Many times we are not in tune enough with ourselves to know when it is we’re been judgey and snobby about something.

Recently, I watched a Dharma talk given by Sister Hoi Nghiem from Plum Village. She spoke about spiritual bypassing and defined it as: thinking that we are practicing when actually we are not. I think this teaching applies here as well.

Sometimes, we think we’re being discerning when really we’re being a snob. Sometimes, we think we’re open-minded and have compassion for others when really we’re only interested in furthering our own agenda and trying to convince people that they should change. Sometimes, we think we’re practicing when really we’re not.





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