Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

Labeling Damage

Do you label others?

According to statistics released in 2010, there are about 160,000 children that miss school every day out of fear of being bullied. We know that bullying can take many forms, but one of the most common is name-calling, either to the person’s face, behind their back or through cyber-bullying. I began to think about name-calling, or labeling, as I was out walking the dogs at the rescue shelter today. I walked by a discarded carton of “Muscle Milk” and began to think how interesting it was to reinvent something we know so well, milk, into something that can build our muscles and make us stronger.

As a marketer, mother, and behavioral expert, I often think about labels and the names we assign to things. It’s all too common in the bullying arena to recognize the danger of naming or labeling, but it is just as insidious and often not recognized in so many other facets of life, too. Unless we stop and think about it, we often don’t recognize the labeIing we are doing, and how it is affecting us and others.

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I noticed, for example, that during the recent electoral season (which I am thankful has ended), I refrained from speaking about my political affiliations at all. The postings on my Facebook page showed me that if I were to voice an opinion about either side of the equation, I would be categorized and pigeon-holed as either a “bleeding heart” or a “raging conservative.” Once you align with a certain political party, all of a sudden the people you thought you liked, you don’t like anymore! If someone is not similarly aligned to your way of thinking, there must be something wrong with them – right?

Why do we need to categorize people anyway? Aren’t labels harmful and stifling for most people? Think of the difficulties caused over the years by assigning names to certain ethic groups, or religions. The label in and of itself puts the person in a box. No matter what they do or say, they can’t get out of that box. The label defines them.

How many of us actually like to be “labeled”? Of course there are positive labels and negative labels, but even good ones (think of the term “do-gooder”) can have negative connotations. A “do-gooder” might be a person who does good, but it might also be a “goody two-shoes.” I had a friend growing up who was always called “Little Miss Perfect” because she was so kind, and so helpful to everyone, but the label was obviously applied by people who found her perfect nature to be offensive. She was a genuinely nice person but always felt hurt that people would label her as being so nice!

The real problem arises when we are unaware of the labels we often apply, and don’t realize the damage we are doing by using them. We might not voice our labels, but we’ll often apply them in reaction to someone. We hear a person talking, we see a bumper sticker, we read a post they’ve placed or we meet someone for the first time and talk with them, and we often make a summary statement to ourselves about that other person. “They are (fill in the blank)” and we think we’ve captured their essence in one statement. Once the person is labeled, it’s very hard for them to move away from that label and to gain another image.

We know there are differences between us – in communication style, in background, in values and motivators. Instead of seeking to understand the differences, we might use the differences to put a wall around the person. We don’t objectively look at their behavior or their value set and try to understand it, we just make our summary statement and place that person in their box! I noticed this a great deal too during the electoral season, when I personally knew a couple of the candidates. I had my own one-to-one experience with them in other venues. When I heard words that were used to describe these people by others, who were voting against them, I couldn’t believe they were talking about the same person.

In marketing, we see how applying a certain name to something changes a person’s image of it. We know that names have power, and the way that we understand products and services changes based on how we interpret that name. In some cases, a name doesn’t translate to a foreign country, for instance, and the name which is near and dear in one case may be offensive in another!

Take a look at the boxes you have ready for people – whether political, religious, lifestyle or because of their communication approach. Instead of putting the person into their box, see if you can deliberately refrain from making a default summary statement. Open your mind, and see if it doesn’t open the boxes you have for others!

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

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