A long time ago I was in a BEd\Bsc program at University.

It was supposed to end with me having two degrees. One Degree in Education and one in Computer Science. But the two faculties couldn’t agree on the course of studies over 5 years. And when I got to year 5 it turned out both expected me to do at least one more full year in each faculty. I wasnt financially in a position to do that and had to decide which to finish. Since I had more credits towards my BSc at that point I finished that. But I did have the better part of 3 years of a BEd under my belt as well.

One of the things that came up for discussion during that education was “labels” and how they affect not only the person(s) being labelled, but also the person who applied the label. If you thought of a kid as “slow” or “stupid” or some other negative term, then you, as their teacher, were more likely to react and treat them in accordance with those labels. And you could inadvertently contribute to that child being treated as “slow” or “stupid”. How you perceived them had a direct impact on how you treated them.

If instead you thought of this student as “smart” and “capable” that too could factor in to how you treated those students.

The best defence was to realize when you were doing this and ACTIVELY work to combat doing this. (This article is VERY good on what to do and how to avoid it)

This sort of thing occurs a lot. We probably all do it from time to time. We label people in various ways. Kind. Considerate. Jerk. A-hole. You name it.

The trouble with applying such labels is that once they are applied they tend to stick. And this assumes that whatever behaviour was labelled is permanent, unchangeable and fixed for all time.

A single clumsy attempt at a joke could end up getting a person labelled as a jerk. And the person applying that label remembers that forever and treats that person as “a jerk” from then on. And never bothers to attempt to ever see that person they labelled in any other way. They were “a jerk”. They are “a jerk”. They always will be “a jerk”. Period.

The trouble is that it’s not realistic. People can in one moment be jerks, and in another extremely considerate, caring and compassionate. Rarely are people ALWAYS some singular label. People ARE complex and labels are often too simplistic. Especially if they are applied rigidly and NEVER re-examined to see if the reasons we labelled that person that way. Re-examination is hard because its very likely we base that re-examination ON the labels we have already applied.

The other downside to labels is that the person applying the label can use that label to dismiss the other person. Whether its complaints, concerns, or whatever its easy to see how labelling someone a jerk leads to “so I dont have to listen to them or try to understand their concerns – they’re jerks !”

And since “they’re jerks” everything is seen through that lens. Reasonable criticisms are seen as “Its by that jerk so I dont have to listen or even try to see IF they have some legitimate reason for that criticism. They’re jerks !”

I’ll admit that I do get frustrated with people and complain about them.
Esp as I drive (ask my wife) I do try to avoid labelling people – but its not a 100% success rate.

And, to be honest, I expect that the people this post is meant for might not read it.
Because they have applied a label which they feel gives them permission to ignore this.
Because that single fixed label that requires no thought, no reexamination, or consideration of anything that other person says, thinks, or does.

3 Replies to “Labelling”

  1. That is spot on Norman. And very timely given the rash reaction that occurred on the two forums. My wife is constantly reminding me of this very topic as she deals with as a teacher day in and day out. I will be the first to admit my record is less than stellar on this.

  2. I think the problem isn’t labeling but mislabeling. Labeling is an essential part of life to organise the vast variety of information we receive and must handle, and make it managable in an efficient way (man, woman, kid or kid, adult, senior or … friend, unknown, enemy, etc). But labeling can be deliberately misused – but blaming the label is like blaming knives for killing people.

  3. I remind myself to focus on the needs of everybody involved, rather than analyzing what I think is “wrong” with them.

    (Unfortunately l am successfully doing so only in about 50% of the cases and for the rest of it I tend to fall back into old habits, trained in since childhood)

    Analyzing what’s wrong with others leads to labeling and then to prejudice and discrimination and conflicts, as well explained in the post above.

    When we choose a strategy to fulfill our needs, we may choose bad ones and people around us then will judge and apply labels – as we do onto others – with all the negative consequences.

    To get out of such vicious circles we can focus on the feelings of a person and the needs behind his actions.

    For instance, if I remind myself that someone is terrified because he thinks that material security is in danger, for his family, his employees and himself, then I may have a chance to connect to him and understand why he is doing what he decided to do.

    At this point it is also important to see that understanding does not equal to agreeing. I can understand someone and still think of diffrent strategies to fulfill the needs of everybody involved.

    I would say, as long as we have not found at least 2 more strategies to fulfill a need, we have not thought about it long enough…

    Anyway, before labeling oneself or others, I suggest to first focus on something we all know and share: the basic needs behind our actions. Then maybe it will be easier to abandon labeling and to reconnect.

    I say maybe, because looking at myself I understand how darn difficult it can be to change old habits.

    Just ask first: How is this person feeling? How am Infeeling? What does this tell me about our needs we wish to get fulfilled?

    And once this is clarified, then only find various strategies to get the job done.

    It helps me with my clients. It helps me with my family. It helps me with my colleagues and friends.

    And it helps me with the A-holes around me… oups, I did it again.

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