Archived Articles

What Does Your Label Say ?

Your Label Tells Me Who You Are –
or Does IT?

We all do it. Like reading the labels on grocery items before putting them away in their proper place on the shelf there is a natural tendency to label people or groups of people then store them in the categories of our mind. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

"Man is the only critter who feels the need to label things as flowers or weeds."                                                                                                Author Unknown

According to Adam Alter in his book “Alternative Truths” labeling itself isn't necessarily a cause for concern. In fact, it is often very useful and can help us catalogue the enormous amount of information we acquire through our senses throughout our lives. Labels like, “tasty,” “loud,” “hot,” “sharp,” "friendly," and "harmful" help us manage life’s situations. However, it is also important to recognize that the people we label as "black," "white," "rich," poor," smart," and "simple," may well seem blacker, whiter, richer, poorer, smarter, and simpler merely because we've labeled them as such.

Alter goes on to say that assigning labels to groups may also determine the social, political, and economic wellbeing of their members.  This is confirmed by a study that began in the 1930s. The study concludes that words we use to describe what we see can actually determine what we see.  This happens whether the label is accurate or not. So if what we see influences what we believe and if what we believe governs how we act then it is imperative to understand the implications of the labels we put on groups and individuals.

Perhaps it would be easier to begin by differentiating between what is called a label and what is called a description. Descriptions are words that depict something or give an account of someone based on fact; “Tom is tall.”

“ Rita is of Irish descent.” Labels on the other hand are more abstract and tend to classify the subject. “The mayor of our town is a liberal.” “She’s a feminist.”

Ask yourself this question: “Is it fair to stereotype people we hardly know or even worse may never have met such as those in magazines, on tv, news and social media for instance?”  It is not difficult to see that labels can be judgmental. We make assumptions and judgments about what we think is inside the person based on the label we attach to them and these assumptions can bias our behavior towards them.

“We inhabit a world in which we tend to put labels on each other and expect that we will then march through life wearing them like permanent sandwich boards.”  ― Nick Webb

On the other hand, labeling can also be a bonding tool used to build camaraderie and belonging. We often label ourselves based on gender, occupation, religious practice or a wide variety of other general categories.  Children may label themselves jocks or geeks, much like politicians label themselves republican or democratic. These group labels create instant belonging for their members, but might also encourage others to make inaccurate judgments.

We all make judgments.  Even a compliment is a judgment.  At times it may even become necessary to judge others. This would be true, for example, in a job interview.  Jenny Abel writer for Rising Voice says, “Noticing certain behaviors or traits in other people is unavoidable.”  That is not necessarily wrong.  Often, however, the descriptive terms we use for people relate to negative aspects of the person or group and, through our preconceived notions and resulting treatment of that person, we effectively consign them to a particular role that then makes change in their lives difficult. Even when that person tries to change or does change, we may continue to treat him or her according to our previous habit.  

So how can we judge others fairly? First of all, keep in mind not all assumptions are harmful.  If you are to judge, then don’t judge according to what others say, which may or may not be exaggerated or interpreted correctly. Instead, listen to what he or she says about himself or herself or others or about the situation in question. Ask questions.  Never judge the actions of another until you know their motives. This will help you avoid making someone else’s enemy your own through hearsay. A good judge is impartial and factual.

Take another look. Are these labels or descriptions? What do you think? 
Fat - Loser - delusional - perfectionist - model - blond - pessimist - snobby - generous - realist - felon - extremist - terrorist - Christian - Jew - Muslim - blue collar worker - pacifist - racist - optimist - narcissist - stupid - missionary - homophobe - pro-life - pro-choice - Hispanic - slackers - jerk - stuck up - two-bit punk - boy scout - do-nothings - noble - loafer - waitress - engineer - priest - reporter - student - cop - child - gifted - old...

--- You get the idea.

 

In the end, keep in mind that we might label others and others will label us but no one can define who we are except ourselves.