Growing up, my dad lived by the mantra, “a place for everything and everything in its place.”  I, on the other hand, once lost my keys walking across the street to the market in Manhattan (true story, but one for another day). To call him organized would be the equivalent of calling Times Square chaotic on New Years Eve – some things are so obvious they do not need to be called out. Our garage was this eclectic combination of game room, surplus freezer space, storage unit, and daddy’s workshop. It had the usual accouterments of saws, drills, hammers, etc., but what I always loved the most were the recycled brown Folgers coffee cans he used for storage. Long before Container Store, my dad was the role model of organization, and those coffee cans held everything from nuts and bolts to screws and drill bits, to things I still to this day couldn’t identify.  And on the front of each can was a label with the description of the contents in his signature block script.  These labels allowed him to easily identify what he could not see.

It turns out all too often we do the same thing with those around us. We cannot see what is inside our neighbor, so we label them and then make judgments based on that which we’ve assigned them. We’re not unique or alone – as we’re labeling them, they’re doing the same. Sizing us up, then slapping a mental label across our forehead.

As a kid, I shunned anything “girl”. Refused to wear a dress, played football with my brothers instead of dolls with my sister, climbed (and fell out of) countless trees, and played fast pitch softball for 10 years. My childhood dream wasn’t to be a UT cheerleader, rather I wanted to play for Darrell Royal as a Longhorn wide receiver. I often joke I was my dad’s favorite son, despite having two older brothers. All of that earned me my first label – “tomboy”. In high school, before there was a diagnosis for ADHD, I was labeled “spacey. Fast forward a couple decades, when I found myself unexpectedly raising Taylor on my own – cue “single mother”.  Sometimes these labels are innocuous, and sometimes they can even serve you well. Like the time one of my favorite VP’s labeled me “digger” because as he put it, “I can bring you any problem and you’ll dig and dig until you find the information you need to solve the problem.” I’m still proud of that label and sometimes share it with clients.  But way too often, labels are neither innocuous or positive, especially in this digital age – “Liberal”, “Conservative”, “Snowflake”, “Slut”, “Good Girl”, “Bad Boy”, “The Smart One”, The Pretty One”, “Jock”, “Airhead”, etc. etc.  What were you labeled as a child, teenager, adult? Did it shape who you are today? Have you made decisions out of fear of what you’d be labeled? Or did you find it was hard, if not impossible to shed them once they stuck?

We should be careful not to assign labels based on assumptions or one aspect of someone’s nature. Human beings are complex creatures, and never solely defined by a singular facet, idea or event. Negative ones can become self fulfilling prophecies when slapped on a child by a parent, teacher, role model or any authoritative figure. But beyond that is something even worse, what’s most troublesome from my perspective. I’ve come to vehemently believe our society has weaponized these labels to shut down any civil discourse with those they disagree. The result being what we have now – a country not divided by values or common good, but one hell bent on tearing down that which we either disagree or don’t understand.  It also robs us of the opportunity to see someone for their whole self, not just who we’ve decided they are. One of my favorite memories when new to the city was a three hour conversation at a rooftop party on the 4th of July with an NYPD cop. I told him my love for Law & Order taught me about NYC neighborhoods before I ever moved here, and that morphed into conversations about 9/11, Rudy Guliani, and the role of the police in neighborhoods. It definitely got “spirited”, but at all times remained respectful. Towards the end of the conversation, he remarked that our views represented a Venn diagram of sorts – there were outer circles where we had no agreement, but the large circle in the middle represented a shared outlook. Then he added with surprise – “I’ve really enjoyed this conversation – you’re nothing what I expected a Texan to be.” So yes, in this instance, I was labeled with my home state. And honestly, I had a choice – choose to be offended, or accept it as an honest compliment. I chose the latter, and was also happy that our conversation allowed this intelligent, personable, nice member of NYC’s finest to see beyond the one dimensional assumed persona that my assigned label afforded.  I have certainly been guilty of labeling others based on assumptions or limited knowledge of their life, beliefs, etc. How about you? Have you missed out on meaningful conversations or relationships based on the labels you’ve assigned to others?

Ultimately, my message is two-fold. First, do not allow yourself to be defined or limited by what the world has decided to label you, or perhaps what you have labeled yourself. Get yourself an entire roll and don’t be afraid to cover yourself in them, adding new labels as you grow and peeling off old ones that no longer reflect who you are. And finally, I hope you’ll accept the same challenge I’ve given myself – to put the sharpie down and stop labeling those around us. Whether it be our neighbor, co-worker, stranger at the grocery store with the crying kids, or anyone else we come across, either in person or in the virtual online universe, we are infinitely enriched when we take the time to see the value in our fellow man. After all, we’re human beings, not coffee cans – let’s act accordingly.

4 thoughts on “Labels

  1. I love it! So true! I hated when people would call my younger daughter a tomboy bc she liked to play catch or basketball in the driveway. She also liked when her older sister braided her hair, and she liked making little movies/intrigued with American girl dolls and her sister. So I would say (kindly I hope) “not sure what a tomboy exactly is, but she’s athletic, and adventurous and also likes to play with her American dolls”. I really try not to use labels for people, and don’t mind being called on it if I do! Happy writing!

  2. I love the concept of weaponized labels. Labels or categories are extremely useful (eg for decision-making.) The weaponization (IMO) in recent decades has been that the populus is presented with usage of the labels in a one-sided presentment of underlying moral/ethical associations. This can be linked to rhetorical tricks (‘The liberals just want a nanny state’) media segregation (‘I won’t listen to XXX news, it’s too biased’) among others. I believe this leads to the unconscious bias (I shudder a bit to use that term.) As we tend not to critically scrutinize every input (wait, what adult actually wants a nanny!?) we tend to just file it away. But in a fast-decision process, I do think that lingering label association triggers a bias (the weaponization) that we don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to filter or realize the underlying need to do so.

    Back to bolts and screws. If any individually constantly hears ‘bolts rust easy’, ‘bolts are usually the wrong size for the job’, ‘bolts are old-school, professionals use construction adhesives’… note there is some element of truth to each one… You’re probably going to reach for the screw jar (or LiquidNails) next time you have to join something. The label has been weaponized.

    An interesting adjunct comes from “Thank You for Arguing” by Jay Heinrichs; that as our rhetorical skills have devolved, our ability to recognize manipulation or outright seduction have correspondingly devolved to our own detriment. (Fun read, highly recommend.)

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