I am this. You are that. They are something else.
Labels – we are forever dishing them out.
And every time we use one, we risk spreading it to others who might hear or see us do so and adopt that same label for the thing or person in question.
Labels help us process the world around us, but with regards to people, they are rarely helpful. Instead, they blind us from the richness and diversity of life.
If you find yourself mentally or verbally labeling someone as having a particular trait or belonging to a particular group, here are some good reasons to stop.
1. People are messy and contradictory.
Labels are a form of reductionism – they seek to describe someone using a small number of core characteristics.
But that’s not how people work. People tend to be a confused and chaotic mixture of thoughts, feelings, and actions.
It’s not uncommon for someone to hold an opinion that doesn’t exactly match their actions, or have an internal battle between morals and motives that don’t quite align.
But labels don’t allow for such complexity. They serve to define a person based on a single thing.
He is arrogant. She is kind. They are selfish.
Yes, he might display arrogance at times, she might show kindness at times, and they might act in their own self-interest at times…
But to believe that that’s all they are is short-sighted.
2. Labels can (wrongly) infer other characteristics in a person.
We tend to believe that labels can be easily grouped together so that a person who fits one label is likely to fit another.
We think that once we know something about a person, we can infer their entire personality.
And even when they prove themselves to be different to how we thought, it can be difficult to shift our perspective.
When we label someone as arrogant, as in the previous point, we may then mentally assume that they are a narcissistic bully who is incapable of forming close loving relationships.
Sure, in some cases, that will be correct. But those cases will be far outweighed by people who just have a slightly inflated sense of self, but who are actually quite kind and endearing once you get to know them.
3. Labels are subjective.
You might see or know someone and believe them to be a certain type of person based on your first impressions and/or your subsequent interactions with them.
You assign them a label of your choosing.
And yet, someone else, based on similar interactions, might view this person in a very different way. They will assign their own label.
An individual may be labelled as brash by one person and as the life and soul of the party by another.
Your label is no more right than someone else’s, so you have to question the point of labeling anyone in the first place.
Of course, it could also be that you assigned your label to someone after a particular interaction, and someone else assigned their label after a very different interaction.
We all have our ups and downs; our good days and our bad days. If you caught someone on a bad day, they might have come across as irritable or argumentative.
A lack of sleep, troubles in other parts of our lives, hormones, and many other things can affect a person’s demeanor at a particular point in time.
This same person may, at other times, be very pleasant and likeable, but if you assign a label based only on what you experience, it won’t reflect this.
This relates strongly to the point that…
4. People can change and grow.
Labels are inflexible. People very much are not.
Though not everybody wishes to change, everybody does in some way or another as they go through life.
But the labels we give others make it difficult for us to recognize or accept this change.
If we see a person as incompetent at their job, this label can be hard to shake no matter how accomplished they may become.
We might always see the error-prone newbie who joined the company five years ago even when they grow to be one of the company’s star performers.
This can influence how we treat them and the relationship we have with them. They may defend themselves if we belittle them and this can lead to a lot of tension.
On the flip side, we may label someone in a positive light and then be unable to see their failings at a later time.
Returning to our business example, a manager might deem a particular member of staff to be their golden child of sorts – someone who can do no wrong.
They may have assigned this label after some excellent work early on in their career. But if this worker no longer performs quite so well, the manager might make excuses for them and refuse to accept that their level has dropped.
Change of any sort becomes far more difficult to see and accept once we have given someone a particular label because to admit that they have changed is to admit that we were wrong to give them that label. And we all know how hard it can be to admit we were wrong.
What’s more, after having been assigned a label, a person may not believe they are capable of change because…
5. Labels can be self-fulfilling.
Imagine someone telling you that you are stupid and that you’ll never amount to anything – a common message of the emotional abuser.
After hearing it enough times, you will begin to believe it. You will assign yourself this label.
And once you believe this label, you might never push yourself to work on those areas where you might be weaker than others (weaker is, of course, a label in itself, used here only for the purpose of understanding).
And if you don’t try to grow and improve, it will only serve to reinforce your belief in the label you were given.
6. Labels create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dynamic.
One of the main uses of the reductionism discussed earlier is to allow us to quickly identify if someone else is like us or different from us.
It’s a way to spot a friend from an enemy.
In our tribal past, this might have served an important use in protecting one’s own from physical threat.
But these days the enemy is more likely to be someone who holds a different world view to us.
Politics is rife with labels and politicians use them to win support from people who agree with those labels.
Whatever country you are in, it’s often a case of pitting conservatives versus liberals and the language used is often filled with disdain.
“Those idiotic liberals would…”
“Those crazy conservatives want us to…”
“I can’t stand people who vote for X, don’t they know that…?”
But it’s not just political differences were we see fit to label others and divide our single human race into “different” segments.
Race, religion, age, gender, sexuality – these are just some of the ways we seek to pit “us” against “them” in our society.
Of course, this mindset prevents you from seeing the human being behind the label.
There might be people with whom you could get on very well – who you could call friends – but you might never give them the time of day because you see a label that you don’t identify with and it scares you.
After all, once you have labelled a group in a negative light, it instantly taints your view of each individual in that group regardless.
7. Labels can give a false sense of superiority.
If you label yourself as one thing, and you believe that thing to be good, it follows that anyone who doesn’t fall under the same label is not as good as you are.
You may hold yourself to the highest possible standard when it comes to cleanliness. Your home and your body are immaculately kept.
You see this as part of who you are – you assign yourself the label of ‘clean person.’
When you then encounter people who do not meet these same exacting standards, you risk feeling superior to them.
You might visit a friend’s house and see a slightly grimy bathroom and some unwashed dishes on the side and feel smug.
This can impact your entire view of your friend and the relationship you have with them.
Perhaps you think you have everything together, whereas they must be struggling. It doesn’t enter your thinking that they may just not care about cleanliness as much as you do.
Or perhaps you live off-grid and eat a home-grown vegan diet because you want to minimize your ecological footprint.
As laudable as this is, if you look down on others who are not so environmentally conscious, you miss the point that everyone leads different lives and that one life is not inherently better than another.
Life is not simple and people’s motivations for thinking or acting the way they do are complex. As soon as you start to wonder why everyone doesn’t think or do the same as you, you fall victim to a superiority complex.
And if you think yourself to be superior and act in such a way – by lecturing people for being ‘lesser’ for example – you will alienate those around you.
Feelings of superiority are also a problem because…
8. Labels allow us to treat others poorly.
The moment you label someone in a negative light, you give yourself permission to treat them poorly.
This can, of course, lead to horrible acts of violence, but it is more commonly seen in micro-aggressions.
You may give a backhanded compliment, for example, to disguise your dislike of a person whilst still making them feel bad.
Or you might act spitefully by not inviting someone from your friendship group to an evening of bowling because you have labelled them as ‘overly competitive’ and liable to rub others up the wrong way.
It might even mean a lack of courtesy to a homeless person because you view them as a ‘scrounger’ who just needs to get their act together.
As already discussed, labels are far too simple to be able to describe a person. But they do help to turn a person into an object – or certainly to remove some of the humanity of that person.
And with the humanity gone or degraded, it’s so much easier to neglect a person’s feelings or general well-being.
9. Labels give us false expectations of a person.
Whilst it is sad in many ways, we tend to judge people upon first meeting them. What they look like, how they sound, what their job is – we factor these and other things in as we begin to assign labels to them.
But those labels alter our expectations of that person, for better or worse.
We might meet a ‘middle-aged entrepreneur.’ This label might lead us to assume that they are intelligent, hard working, and wealthy.
We might meet an ‘overweight homemaker with three children.’ This label might lead us to assume that they are stupid, lazy, and unsuccessful.
With these initial labels assigned, we may hone in on anything that confirms our expectations, whilst ignoring things that contradict them.
The entrepreneur might be overseeing a failing business and be on the verge of bankruptcy. The homemaker might have given up a successful career to raise their children.
Yet, it can be hard to look past our initial judgements and the expectations we have of someone based upon them.
Try it now. Create an imaginary person in your mind. Duplicate them. Make one version a doctor and the other a burger flipper at your local fast food outlet.
Given this one piece of knowledge about the two people’s lives, who do you expect to be happier, healthier, wealthier, more likeable, more at ease with who they are.
Probably the doctor, right?
But you can’t make that assumption. Basing your expectations of a person on any one label – or even multiple labels – is unwise.
You can’t know someone until you really spend time with them, getting to know who they are at a much deeper level than any label can achieve.
Speaking of expectations…
10. Even positive labels can backfire.
Labels can be negative such as ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’ and they can be positive such as ‘kind’ or ‘attractive,’ but whilst the damaging consequences of the former are clear, the latter can also have undesirable results.
The problem with labeling someone in a positive way comes when they feel unable to live up to the beliefs and expectations of others, or when they feel the label doesn’t match how they see themselves.
A parent telling their child how ‘clever’ they are can put pressure on them to perform well academically. If they struggle with a particular subject, they may believe they are letting their parents down and feel upset by this.
A person telling their partner how ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome’ they are may seem like a really nice gesture, but if those labels are incongruent with the partner’s view of themselves, it may make them doubt the compliment or feel unworthy of receiving it.
It’s not that all positive labels should be avoided, but one must tread very carefully when assigning them, with full awareness of how they might affect the person being labelled.
You may also like:
- 7 Ways To Be A Nicer Person
- Why The “Strong Personality” Label Needs Rethinking
- Discover How Your “Self-Concept” Influences Everything You Do
- How To Be Comfortable In Your Own Skin: 17 No Bullsh*t Tips!