It would be impossible to live without labels. From food labels to record labels, birth names to regal titles, labels help us navigate life. They enable us to communicate.
Words, specifically nouns, serve as labels. We all have labels and use them. When we need medical attention, we look for someone labeled doctor. Leaky pipe? Call the plumber! In short, labels make it possible to live in an environment as complex as human society.
But it’s not only possible to imagine a world without labels, it’s well worthwhile. As an exercise, thinking of a world without labels makes one aware of how unreliable labels are and how destructive they can be.
Consider this attempt at putting labels in their place.
We are all given labels from the day we are born. Our name and gender to begin with. Then depending on how we are raised and how we are treated by our parents, siblings, and peers in early life, we form an image and evaluation of ourselves based on the labels used to describe us.
Encouraged by positive images of themselves, some people blossom. Unfortunately the opposite happens to those berated and downgraded early in life by negative labels.
Negative labels block our way to success. They don’t always prevent success, but some people must spend energy surmounting the obstacles negative labels have put in their way.
We label ourselves. Ever get lost and complain, “I have a lousy sense of direction”? Sometimes before we put in the effort to master a skill, we excuse ourselves with a negative label. “I’m not very good at math,” or “I can’t sing.”
Research from as far back as the 1930s has determined that the words we use to describe what we see actually determine what we see.
As soon as you accept a label someone places on people of a certain race, nationality, or orientation, your experience with people in those groups becomes shaded by that label. It takes active effort to keep yourself free of the stereotypes labeling can eventually impose.
I hope Coca-Cola’s dramatic Ramadan stand against labeling people does more than sell more Coke. But I also hope we don’t leave it up to them. If you haven’t already, try the Label Buster exercise in our latest Leadership Attraction News. Do it with your team for a stimulating and enlightening exercise.
Why It’s Dangerous to Label People by Adam Alter