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July 5, 2022

The Labels We Attach to People – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie


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"...vegetable oil (palm fruit and/or maize germ or sunflower seed) with antioxidant (TBHQ), acidity regulators (E330, E262, E296, E260), maltodextrin, corn starch, flavorings, potassium chloride..." I put the packet back on the shelf so quickly you'd think it had bitten me!

Blog author and Mind Tools Coach, Yolande Conradie.
Mind Tools Coach,
Yolande Conradie

The label on the food package informed me of what it contained and enabled me to make a choice that was good for me. But what would have happened if the label didn't contain all the information, or if some of it was inaccurate? 

That got me thinking about how we label people.

Why Do We Label Others?

Humans are meaning-making beings. And we make meaning in a variety of ways. One of which is sorting things and people into categories. To be able to sort them, though, we need to give them names or labels. The labels we attach to people are therefore short-form descriptions. Putting them into a category using only one or two words results in quick and easy "meaning-making."

Compounding the meaning-making, the brain is also an excellent labor-saving device. That's why it builds neural pathways: we can get things done much quicker when the brain knows exactly which neurons to fire up for a task we've done before. So once again, labels come into play – it's easier to put people and things into existing pathways (read: labels) than to form a new one each and every time.

And how do we label them? We usually label people according to their behavior: introvert, gossip, clown, lazy, bossy, crazy. You take one characteristic (or perceived characteristic) and apply it to the whole person and everything they do.

Labeling Ourselves

If you think we only label other people, you'd be dead wrong. We're absolute masters at labeling ourselves – often without even being aware of it! Think of the titles or descriptors you've chosen for yourself and what they tell the world about you.

The way we label our own actions gives us a clue to how we view others. If you're likely to label yourself as a "failure" because of one mistake, you might find yourself being a bit harsh toward others, too.

Our self-chosen labels also speak of our existential needs such as wanting to belong, being loved, having a purpose, and being seen and recognized. We always have to be vigilant though: our self-labels need frequent examination to establish that they're true and not self-destructive in any way.

Beyond the Label

Have you ever noticed that when working with someone known as "difficult," you look at all their actions through the lens of "difficult?" Or if a woman asserts her boundaries, you get an eye roll and a knowing look from a colleague as if to say, "See? I told you she's bossy."

However, when you get to know the "difficult" person, you realize that they're very detail oriented and have high standards. And you learn that the woman has been working hard to get where she is, and refuses to accept sexist behavior. Is she still bossy? Or is she simply a person with a strong character? 

The labels you attach to people can feed into and reinforce your own biases, affecting how you treat others. You may also reinforce people's negative self-concepts. The teenage "troublemaker" who comes from an underprivileged background might internalise that label, to the cost of their future. 

Good Labels

Even a "good" label could have negative effects. Imagine coming from a family of mathematics superstars – and you happen to be the one that's amazing at languages.

If you're labeled as one of the "math whizz kids" you might start feeling that you're not good enough if you constantly fail to live up to other people's expectations of your mathematical abilities. In the process, the fact that you're a fantastic writer fades into the background.

With all of that said, we must acknowledge that labels can be put to good use as well. For example, if someone is labeled as "vulnerable" it gives us a heads up that we need to be extra compassionate and understanding when working with that person.

For me, the most important take away is that we need to be careful with the labels we and others attach to people. I know how much I hated it when someone labeled me as "moody" when I was not my usual perky self because of severe premenstrual syndrome.

Instead of labeling the mother as "irresponsible" because she's often late, try and find out what her challenges are and how you can better help or accommodate her. Don't label that youth as "a troublemaker" for a single misdemeanor – try and find out what their social circumstances are. Become a champion of the human, rather than a propagator of the label.

Discussing the Labels We Use

During Friday's #MTtalk Twitter chat, we discussed labeling: how we label people, why we do it, and how it makes us feel. Here are all the questions we asked, and some of the best responses: 

Q1. Why do we use labels? 

@eriphar Labels can be used to either create distance or intimacy. They're sometimes used to show ownership or mark territory. 

@LernChance It makes communication easier but also less personal. It helps to group things together rather than mentioning each single thing. (I.e. toys) 

@ZalaB_MT Labeling ourselves and others is a way of making sense of the world, attaching meaning and structure to people and things around us. It can also exert power in relation to others – for example in work settings it is a way of "branding" co-workers/employees. 

Q2. What are examples of labels you've heard or used? 

@Midgie_MT Some positive labels include smart, funny, sociable and some negative labels include difficult, aggressive, stupid. There are both positive and negative labels. 

@MikeB_MT When I was younger, I heard labels that sometimes became nicknames. Because of my long last name, I was often called "Barz" as a child. While it was a shortening of my last name, it also became a label, a vessel that also held others' impressions of me. As an adult, I've heard labels describe a personality trait or something that happened in the workplace. Examples of these labels might be that a person is "difficult" or "impatient." 

Q3. Why does the issue of labeling matter? 

@LernChance It helps smoothing communication, but also can be misleading. (I.e. If the label points to abilities of people, or how certain groups of people have to behave.) 

@DreaVilleneuve Labeling matters when we don't think of it beyond what we believe/perceive and allow it to color our judgment. Labeling as a springboard to learn more about someone makes it a tool that can be useful when we choose curiosity. 

Q4. How do you feel about being labeled? 

@PG_pmp If labeled for expertise, then people feel proud of it...however if labeled for some fault, it is worse. 

@CaptRajeshwar I feel proud to see my accomplishments, my training, my teaching to students, clients; gurus know me as "CAPT" only. I'd say branding rather labeled. 

Q5. How would you respond if you felt that someone had labeled you? 

@JanetNestor We label each other all the time and we probably can't change that. Negative labels are hurtful. Positive labels can be positive or they can create undue pressure to be or act a specific way. 

@DrSupriya_MT Being the assertive individual, I had heard that I was being called "Bossy"! Didn't like it and I still remember how hard I tried to get rid of that label by being overly kind and not delegating the tasks. 

Q6. In what ways might labeling change your view of a person or group? 

@MarkC_Avgi If I have been labeled, I first need to find out if the label is justified by my actions or attitude, and if I don't like the label, I need to change those actions and my attitude. 

If I feel the label is unjustified, any respect for the other person is lost. 

@s_narmadhaa Coming from a society that's heavily caste- and religion-based, such labels are definitions of people. I've seen people passing judgments on others based only on their caste. Such biases are the foundation of hatred and violence. 

Q7. Can and should we stop other people using labels in a harmful way? 

@dikayodata Yes. If you're going to use a term, be careful about how and be sure to include more context than just that word. If you can't, maybe don't talk about it at all. 

@_GT_Coaching From a personal point of view, if I label someone or say something that someone views as harmful, I can use their feedback to impact change on how I show up to them. 

Q8. How could labeling impact diversity and teamwork? 

@SarahH_MT Diversity and teamwork is without doubt impacted by labeling. I try always to challenge any negative or unhelpful labeling and encourage people to reframe the label into something more positive. 

@eriphar It can (de)motivate or divide/make cohesive. Labeling is the first step, it's the actions that accompany it that would cause the impact. Until then, labels are just words. 

Q9. Can labels harm workplace or personal relationships – or even help them? 

@MaryEllenGrom We all have names for a reason. Or nicknames for that matter. Save the labels for packaging. 

@SoniaH_MT In any relationship (personal or at work), labels can HELP when we communicate them as sincere compliments and HARM when our actions vs. words are incongruent. Keeping labels in our heads can be dangerous because one risks speaking their mind at the wrong time. 

Q10. Instead of labeling people, what could we do that would be more helpful? 

@AnuMeera2024 Use those moments as learning and self-reflection opportunities. See that it's the unconscious bias you have learnt, carried, believed or promoted as a culture or way of living that's leading to you want to label someone! 

@JanetNestor We can meet each other as equals. That gives everyone permission to grow and become their best self. 

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.

Coming Up on #MTtalk

Burnout is on the rise and many people are struggling. How can you best support them? Our next #MTtalk will explore managing exhausted team members. 

In our Twitter poll this week, we'd like to know what action you'd take when you notice a team member looks exhausted. 

Look out for our next blog for the results, and to read my fellow Mind Tools coach Mike Barzacchini's top tips on exhaustion.

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