Reality Check: Our label makers

Putting labels on things can be a very effective organizational activity. Whether you are looking for the cookies or the Robertson head screws, it will be easier to find them if the containers are labeled. Labeling can be a great timesaver!

While some labels are a statement of fact, other labels attach a value (good or bad, essentially). We can all agree on what a Robertson head screw is, but we may not all agree on whether it is superior to others. Labels that attach a value, such as good, bad, attractive, dreadful, worthwhile, or inferior are judgment calls.

Value labels may pop up quickly—so quickly that we could mistake them for statements of fact, rather than choice or judgment.

When we attach labels to people, intentionally or not, they serve as timesavers, too. For example, you meet the daughter’s new beau with his skull cap and tattoos, and a label springs to mind. You help the new neighbours move in and based on the garden gnomes among their possessions, you come up a label.

Have you ever labeled someone based on where they live? (rural south shore, New York City, Fort McMurray.) How about based on what they do for a living? (nurse, tax auditor, investment banker) Even how a person chooses to get their food supply (hunting, farmer’s market, big box store) can inspire some to attach value labels.

“Good,” “bad,” and many other labels that we assign may be based on valid, logical reasons and experiences. For example, putting my hand on the hot stove is a bad thing to do, based on experience or observation. Labels may also be based on superstition, untruths, or bias. It can be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference.

Once we’ve attached a label, we have a tendency to use it; it becomes a shortcut. In his book, Take Charge of Your Life, Dr. Glasser says, “When we assign values to those we love, these values can cause a great deal of frustration.”

When what we see conflicts with our internal pictures of how someone should behave, we may respond to that gap by labeling the person in a negative way.

For example, you fell in love with the calm attitude of your partner. The relationship was all sweetness and light as long as you labeled him “easygoing.”

Now that your partner still hasn’t made any effort to find work, however, that “laid-back” label that you used to use may be converted to “lazy.” And once you’ve chosen lazy as the label, you may find yourself automatically viewing all of his behaviour through that labeling shortcut.

Is the label really reflective of the person? If your partner falls into a high-paying, laid-back job, will your label change from “lazy” to “brilliant”? Same person; different label!

Being aware of our labeling tendencies is helpful. Why? Because when we recognize that we are in control of choosing labels, then we also know that we can change those labels, should we choose to do so.

Do you find yourself labeling others automatically? Do you feel that others label you?

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