Labels are devices for saving talkative persons the trouble of thinking.
On the other day, I was having a conversation, and the other participant was talking about a person they know who is quite short: “I could start calling him big guy. You know, so that someone would.”
I really didn’t like that idea, and I started wondering why that was.
The distorted mirror
On the other hand, I do understand the emotion behind the joke. It links back to the play signals and trust aspect, at least in my mind. Depending on who you’re joking around with, the boundaries of the jokes may be quite flexible, and if all participants trust each other enough, the jokes can get quite harsh and no-one is insulted.
On the other hand, though, that kind of joking – focusing on a distinct physical, social or mental feature – is like putting a distorted mirror in front of the person. In your words, they hear themselves as nothing but that single attribute, and chances are they’re very aware of having that attribute already.
If all you ever show them of themselves is that distorted, one-tracked picture, they’ll pretty soon start thinking you see them as that person. They may even start thinking they are that person.
This is one of the reasons why teachers need to be very careful when labeling their students as smart, lazy, uninterested, stupid, well-behaved, or something else.
When the student, especially a child or an adolescent, hears their teacher tell them they’re stupid or lazy, or smart and hard-working, they might respond by becoming what is expected of them anyway.
On the other hand, even if the teacher never says the label out loud, it affects his or her own thinking. When looking at the “smart” kid, it’s difficult to believe he’d do anything mischievous, since he is so, well, smart. It’s a lot easier to blame the “uninterested” kid, regardless of whether or not they actually did anything.
The teacher might not even see all the mischief the “smart” kid gets up to, because their mental filter more or less blocks out any causal relationship between hassle in class and the “smart” kid.
You mean teachers don’t sleep at school?
In social relationships, labeling has slightly less dramatic consequences, because the difference of authority and power is smaller than in a classroom. Nevertheless, labeling your friends as “the single guy”, “the party girl”, “the arts student”, “the tech student”, “the jock”, “the shorty”, “the fatty”… Well, it leaves you with a bunch of pretty slim social relationships.
Everyone is a complex, multi-faceted person. Duh, right?
I and my friend, who plays in the same band I do, have been considering writing a satirical song in the vein of so many female artists. You know, the song about how, like, complex and, like, full of contradictions I am as, like, a person. Uhhuh, as opposed to, what, the simple, one-tracked and logical people that the rest of us are? Give me a break.
We tend to think of other people as far less complex than we are, and to me that’s pretty normal. We only see a fraction of what’s going on in their life compared to the entirety of our own life we’re participating in.
However, it’s pretty naive to assume that just because I only see the teachers at school, they don’t have a personal life. Or that if a friend doesn’t bring a date to a party, they’re desolate and desperate to find a relationship. Or if they’re an arts student they suck at math.
Labeling, mental and spoken, does just that, though.
Another balancing act
It’s really a question of balance, like so many things in communication.
With “the big guy” case mentioned in the beginning, the two people don’t interact daily. They meet once or twice a week, and of that they don’t spend a lot of time communicating. If this person had started calling their friend “big guy” once or twice a week, that would pretty much have been the entirety of their communication.
The bigger part of our communication to that person refers to their label, the smaller part of it is spent actually finding out about the other aspects of their life. And that’s the part that builds trust – which can then be employed, in small measures, to skilfully play around with the stereotype without assuming it’s the whole truth.
Lovely of you to stop by again, keep catching your own insightings!