Negative Label Quiz

Let’s stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

Posted Mar 04, 2020

We live in an era of negative labels.

Research — and common sense — show that the use of negative labels makes bad interactions worse. Well, just about everyone who uses them also has common sense. So why do we keep doing it? The harsh (and not entirely fair) explanation is that negative labels make us feel “right,” more confident, and morally superior. And those feelings have become more important than understanding each other.

A less judgmental answer to why we keep using terms we know to be ineffective communication is: “Everyone else does it.”

Negative labels are more contagious than any known virus. When we hear or read them, we’re likely to use them. If someone attributes a negative label to us, we’re almost certain to think of one to describe that person.

Social media floats on a sea of negative labels. Politicians can barely speak without using them. They’ll even use them to describe voters they would like to win over. Anyone who votes for my opponent is:

  • Unpatriotic
  • Racist
  • Duped/stupid
  • Deplorable

Negative labels invoke shame. In some cultures shame motivates conformity. In ours, it stirs anger and strengthens opposition. Once the use of negative labels becomes habit, parties and social groups begin using them internally. In-fighting and endless sub-divisions or factions result.

Negative labels are now used so frequently in public discourse, they’ve become a shorthand for stereotypes, little more than code words or slurs.

How Much Is Too Much?

You would think that overexposure to negative labels would desensitize us. If only that were the case, people wouldn’t be so easily offended, and we wouldn’t have self-defeating terms like triggered.

Besides creating a sense of entitlement and impulse for retaliation, making us feel like victims of our own emotions, the concept of “being triggered” puts control of emotional well-being entirely in the hands of those people we like the least. We lose personal agency in endless reactivity, mired in painful, unproductive resentment, which eventually infects all our relationships.

Slurs in Love

Negative labels are especially harmful in close relationships. If a partner or child accepts a label, self-value diminishes, with resentment, anger, an acting-out behavior filling the void. If the label is resisted, power struggles or passive-aggressive sabotage ensue. The real problem gets loss in arguments about the label, not the behavior in question.

What Kind of Response Can We Expect?

In the following quiz, note which response is more likely.

1. “You’re selfish.”

  • a.  “I’ll do whatever you want, honey.”
  • b. “What you really mean is I’m not meeting your selfish preferences.”

2. “You’re lazy.”

  • a. “Thank you, now I’m motivated to work around the house.”
  • b. “Stop your nagging.”

3. “You’re irrational.”

  • a.  “Then let me carefully analyze the situation.”
  • b.  “You’re so cold and dense. What you mean is, I have a different perspective.”

4. "You’re controlling.”

  • a. “You’re right, I should back off and not try to influence your behavior.”
  • b. “Nothing would ever get done right!”

5. “You’re stubborn.”

  • a. “I’ll try to be more flexible.”
  • b. “You’re wrong, yet again.”

6. “You’re ignorant.”

  • a. "I’m sorry, I’ll try to learn more and brush up on my facts."
  • b. “You’re a jerk.”

7. “You’re narcissistic.”

  • a.  "You’re right, I need to pay more attention to your wants and needs and less to my own.”
  • b.  “You’re a crazy borderline.”

Negative labels are unavoidably devaluing and disrespectful. We might think we’re asking for positive change, but we’re really trying to make partners feel bad about themselves so they’ll do what we want them to do.

Caveat: Don’t be fooled into thinking you can improve relationships by merely not voicing negative labels. All you have to do is think them. Your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice will then communicate them abundantly.

A Simple Rule: Whatever we focus on, we’re likely to get more of. Negative labels sharpen focus on what we don’t want. Focus instead on what you do want. Show value and respect when you ask for it, and appreciation when you get it.