Communication is the key to all the relationships we have, which means it is also the key reason that some of our relationships go “wrong”. Going “wrong” can have many different looks too, ranging from explosive to brooding silence, all the way to drifting apart and losing contact. However “wrong” looks for you, this relationship breakdown causes stress and our assumptions that we make of people can be a core factor.
by Jaron Steffens
P.G.Dip Sci (Psychology), B.App.Sci (Psychology)
Dip Child & Adolescent Psychology, Dip Tch (PE & Health)
Where do you fit? What box would you put yourself in? What box would other people put you in? There would never be just one answer to this question, it really depends on who’s asking.
This is why first impressions are so important. When we meet someone for the first time we are already working out where they fit, and once this impression is made, it’s pretty difficult to override, even when we are presented with overwhelming contradicting evidence. It’s perfectly natural and common to decide that someone you have just met is an arrogant prat, a wet fish, a slobbering drunk, a judgemental cow, a bit simple, or a touch predatorial. By sticking strongly to this impression, however, we may be limiting ourselves and others in our lives by dismissing the positive things that we and other people in our lives have to offer.
Humans love to categorise things. We put things in their metaphorical boxes, so we know where they belong and what characteristics they are likely to have. This gives us the sense that we have some control over the chaos. This is commonly called labelling. Labelling is kinda the start of stereotyping, which leads down a whole other rabbit hole of isms and phobias. Once we give someone a label, we like to then describe behaviours and ways of life that fit with the label, and will often ignore any evidence that contradicts the label for the particular individual. Throughout human history this labelling and stereotyping has been the cause of wars, oppression of large groups of people, and dismissal of what an individual has to offer based on the label they have been given.
If labels lead to such abhorrent behaviour towards other human beings, why do we continue to do this? What function does labelling serve in the modern age? What can we as individuals do to avoid falling into the trap of reinforcing stereotypes and continuing the oppression and dismissal of individuals?
Labels CAN be Helpful
Giving the people we encounter labels helps us to remember who people are and how they fit into our lives: “You remember Steve, surfer, plays guitar, drives a beat-up old Corolla.” Everyone knows a Steve. Have you ever been out on the town, seen someone you know, but avoided starting a conversation because you can’t remember who they are or where you know them from? Then you turn up at the gym on Monday, see them in their gym gear and go, “Oh yeah, it’s Nancy from the gym, I didn’t recognise her in a different context.” Labels help us socially in this way by allowing us to connect a few minor details to acquaintances without having to fill up our minds with minor details. I haven’t had hair on my head for 20 years. The cunning disguise of a hat often allows me to say hello to people I know without them knowing who on Earth I am. ‘Bald guy’ is the simple recognition label given to me by these people.
A label can help an individual to understand better where they fit in this world. For people who identify as LGBTQ+, for example, a self-described label can help to understand where they fit in a world where they never thought they did. A self-described label can help an individual find like-minded people who share their enthusiasm on a topic. This kind of label can also give an oppressed minority strength in numbers and a bigger voice to raise awareness.
Labels in the form of diagnoses are also helpful. A diagnostic label allows a medical professional to describe a prognosis and outline the appropriate treatment for their patient. There may also be funding and support groups for others with the same diagnosis. People can experience massive relief when they have a diagnosis, even if it is not a good one, because it gives them direction forward and information that explains what they may have been feeling in themselves for a long time.
Labels CAN be Limiting
We can skip over the obvious millennia-of-label-associated-oppression mentioned in the introduction. Let’s look at some of the possibly unseen, and more individual, issues with labelling people.
Problems with labels can arise when someone is given a diagnosis and they then start to identify themselves as that diagnosis. Once a label has been chosen, it can take over as an identity. A diagnosis like depression can be relatively short lived and is very treatable. Sometimes, however, the diagnosis becomes the identity that this person chooses for themselves, and they can live for many years in a state of low mood because this state of being was never challenged after the diagnosis. This way of being may cause the individual to feel that they are limited for levels of achievement that are available to them. This applies to most of us, often based on something that happened when we were young. At some stage in life we may have been told that we are not very good at something – maths, English, sport, art, music, etc. – or that we don’t like something – flying, dogs, pineapple on pizza, etc. – and ever since this time we have accepted this label and not tested the truth behind it now that we are older.
This problem can work in reverse too. Other people in your life may begin to write off perfectly normal human functioning as a symptom of your label. Someone may have a genuine, rational response to an event, which then gets dismissed as a symptom of their label. For example, a person with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease might trip and fall over a poorly placed obstacle and break a bone. People may attribute the fall to the diagnosis and not to the obstacle. This type of labelling creates limitations with people falsely assuming that a person is not capable of doing something based on their diagnosis or label. A label could cause someone to be overlooked for a job or promotion based on misinformation about their ability.
Labels can be damaging for those diagnosed with common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. There may be little understanding of what the diagnosed person is living with, so we try to understand using our own life experience rather than talking to the person to understand what life is like for them. Chronic fatigue is one diagnosis that is commonly dismissed as laziness without ever talking to someone who suffers from the condition. People may also try to describe someone with an anxiety disorder as unnecessarily overdramatic without understanding that mental illness works the same as physical illness. Once again, understanding what the illness means to this person, and what you could do to make life easier for them is a great way forward in your relationship with this person, and not force limitations on them based on the stereotype view of what the label means.
Cat in a Box
A nice analogy for a label is to imagine that the person is a cat, and the label is a box. Have you ever had your forearms shredded by claws failing to get a cat into a carrier box, only to find the animal fast asleep in a different box once you have staunched the bleeding? People are going to be comfortable with a label they have chosen for themselves, but will likely resist a label that is forced upon them.
Addressing the Labelling Effect
First up, test your theories about yourself. You may find that you are capable of achieving those things you thought you couldn’t, some things just take extra time and practice to master. This means you need to first catch yourself in the act of avoidance due to a belief that you are unable. Challenge what you are telling yourself, and if this is something you would like to be able to do, make a plan, throw some pineapple on your pizza, and have a go.
We need to be careful with how we label people and how this can cloud the way we see them as a person. This could also inadvertently reinforce insecurities that the individual already holds about themselves. The label may make us blind to all the great things that this person has to offer. Find the positives and admire the person’s strength and ability to overcome adversity. Life is so much more enjoyable when we can overlook what’s broken and emphasise what works.
Take a Moment
Hold people in genuine positive regard. When you meet someone for the first time, sincerely get to know what life events mean to them as an individual. This will go a long way to understanding who this person is and you will respect them as a person with something to offer, rather than just seeing them as their chosen or given label and the stereotype that is attributed to that label. When our first impression of someone is generally negative we lean towards trying to find evidence that backs up our original theory and we start to interpret innocuous actions as intentionally destructive in some way. This is a lot of negativity towards one person to carry around. Your mission, if you choose to put yourself in this box, is to find the evidence that contradicts your initial negative impression of someone. Achieve this, and the world will become a much happier place for you, as you will find that you are surrounded by amazing people.