People use labels all the time: “she’s the blond”, “he’s the ball player”, “she’s the lawyer” – you get the idea. Labels are used as shorthand; they save words and time. They can be helpful. They can also be harmful.
Labels are good when helping clarify what we are talking about. For example, if you ask somewhat they do, you would rather hear s/he is an accountant than hear s/he works with numbers. The label helps you grasp what they actually do. Another example, if you are asked to go out boating and want to know what kind of boat you would be on, hearing it is a sailboat doesn’t tell you much. You learn much more if you know it is a forty foot sloop, not an eight foot dinghy. Labels that clarify your intent are useful – provided you have a respectable intent.
When your intent is less than respectable, labels can be harmful. For example, consider the statement, “she’s a blond”. This simple sentence sends many messages, including:
- It is frequently heard as implying she is a stereotypical dumb blond. If this is your intent, it is simply rude. It demeans not only the woman you are talking about, but also the many highly intelligent blonds. If this is not your intent, revisit your word choices.
- It reduces her to a stereotype that overlooks her many good qualities. People are complex. To reduce someone to one quality strips them of the richness of what they offer us. This is especially true when the focus is on something subjective.
- It also speaks volumes about you. If you come across as demeaning, it paints a less than flattering image of you in the listener’s perspective. People wonder what you might say about them behind your back.
Other labels have similar issues. The label might apply to a person, a trait or something entirely different. Relying on a label to short cut your thought process can have unintended consequences.
Sometimes, they are very harmful. This is especially true with children, who take everything personally.
When is it good to rely on a label? If the label enhances your understanding, it is good. Once you have the understanding, it can become dangerous if you over focus on the label and ignore the rest of the context. For example, I recently learned something that explains why I respond to certain behaviors in a given way. Now I understand, I don’t want to embrace that label as my identity – it is simply a small part of who I am.
Pay attention to the labels you use. And look past the label and see the whole.