We use labels to identify people. It is convenient and sometimes extremely useful. At the same time labels are often problematic. When used unnecessarily, they distract you from the core intent of your conversation and create a barrier between you and others.
Labels distract when they are irrelevant
Imagine someone asks you to plan an awards banquet and look for the best people to put on the team. Someone offers that Victor went to Ohio State and would be an asset. Suddenly the focus shifts to Ohio State instead of the banquet. This is at least pleasant if you are from Ohio, as I am; if you are from Michigan – not so much.
To keep your conversation on track and productive, omit the labels that don’t add clarity to your purpose. Questions to ask yourself include: what does where he went to school have to do with the project? Why is it relevant? So what?
If Victor received many honors at Ohio State, the comment could be relevant. In that case, mentioning his extensive experience with such events would be more helpful than simply stating he went to Ohio State. If, on the other hand, he is not experienced with such events, telling people where he went to college adds nothing to the task at hand and can easily pull the conversation off topic, delaying your work. If you are looking for donations of Ohio State merchandise, the comment could be helpful.
Clear communications focus on the end objectives. Straying from those objectives can cost you time, money and effort. Save the casual chatter for down time.
Labels create “us” vs. “them”
Using labels when describing people divides people into camps. Labels focus attention on one small facet of a person, ignoring the rest. People are complex and no one label can adequately describe them, except perhaps “human”.
To say Amy is an engineer implies attributes. Depending on the conversation (and audience) this is either good or misleading. Again, it depends on the purpose of the conversation.
If you are looking for for a logical and precise individual, it is useful to say Amy is an engineer. If you are talking about something else, or simply chatting, it pigeon holes Amy and can exclude her from consideration. Again, ask yourself: why is this relevant? Is the label restricting, causing the person to be reduced to a small fraction of his or her humanity? How might it cause someone to be excluded?
If you are (still) planning the awards banquet, you might consider Amy a good candidate to manage the project. In that case saying she is an engineer is part of your rationale and helpful. If you are looking for someone to do the public relations, focus on the qualities that are needed and the people who exhibit those qualities; engineering is unlikely to be at the top of your list so you don’t have to talk about Amy.
The key is to prevent labels from being seen (or used) as a means of excluding people and creating divisions.
What do labels have to do with respect?
Respect always calls for honoring people and treating them kindly. Using labels to distract a conversation doesn’t honor the organization or people’s time. Using labels to create a “we/they” division doesn’t honor the many similarities people share. Thoughtless use of labels is generally behind the distraction or division. Use labels for a purpose, to add clarity to a conversation and maintain people’s dignity.