Labels can be extremely useful and necessary. They give a description of a product and the contents thereof, and provide crucial information to guide our decision-making as consumers. Incorrect labelling can have severe consequences, both to the consumer of the product and the applier of the label. ‘Back in the day’, labels on products were less necessary, mostly because products were more likely to be in, or be close to being in, their natural form.
Labels that are applied to people, however, are a different story. We are still mostly in, or close to being in, our natural form. A label applied to a person will, by its nature, be inaccurate, as it can never be complete. At their best, labels, thoughtfully applied, can describe a few qualities of a person and help us make partially informed choices about them or ourselves in relation to the qualities identified. However, at their worst, they can create targets at which our individual or collective fears can be directed. Far too often, labels are applied without thought (as we may have done in childhood games) or with harmful intent, which can change the meaning of a label and is what creates the discomfort with ‘being labelled’.
Any ‘label’ loses the potency and specificity of its meaning when it is used too liberally. A medical label applied to a condition can be useful to determine how best to manage the condition, or help the person with the condition, but the person is not the condition, nor is the condition the person, so applying the label out of context or as an absolute can disadvantage the person and minimise the condition. Equally, a description of eye colour, hair colour or skin colour can be useful for the identifying of a person for example, but characteristics can be changed or disguised, so applying them as permanent fixtures would be inaccurate. This is similar to how using the same descriptors within a different context could render them offensive or irrelevant.
In a business, community, school or home, labels are often used to describe people and/or their ability, and without thought, even seemingly affirming labels can be harmful. A label that may be applied with constructive intent, such as ‘she is a highflier’, could be seen as a complimentary label. Another label, often applied with frustration to someone who is not seen to be doing what is expected of him, could be along the lines of ‘he is useless’. These are two extremes, but neither can be an accurate reflection of a person. She may be performing very well with the current set of circumstances, in a role to which she is well suited, but add or change a component and a whole lot can shift and she may experience unintended pressure with this label attached to her. Equally, ‘he is useless’ cannot be an accurate reflection of a person or their ability, as no one is ‘useless’, yet it is often applied. While the latter may be considered to be a more detrimental label, neither can be consistently accurate and there is so much more in and around us than a label can define. Both can be momentarily fulfilled (in a persons lifetime), but the label can stick long after the moment has passed.
A good indicator of the value of a label is often determined by the person to whom the label has been applied’s acceptance of the label. I am quite understanding of being labelled ‘useless’ when faced with fixing my hard drive. However, I will take exception to being labelled ‘useless’ while cooking, because although it is not my strength, I am not useless. I can equally accept a label of ‘white privilege’ to be valid unless the intention is to demean or shame me. Affirming labels - such as ‘kind’, ‘strong’ and ‘thoughtful’ - are encouraging, but also aren’t always applicable, as different environments and situations can bring out different behaviours that are present in each of us.
It is not the actual label that we need to be most wary of, but the thought, lack of thought or intent that has gone into applying the label. It is often true that there is a stronger reflection on the one applying the label than the person to whom the label is being applied. Being mindful of our intent as well as the context can assist us to choose better descriptors.
A label is effective when used for a product, and can be useful for a medical condition, too, but it is seldom an accurate reflection of a person’s character. This is partly because we are made up of so much more than what could ever fit onto a label, partly because we are changing continuously, and partly because of the different lenses people look through when making the observation.
While labelling is a natural process that helps us to make sense of the world, we can be cognisant of the angle of ourselves people see or the lens through which they choose to see us and we see them. We can also choose which labels we are comfortable to own as elements of our evolving identities, and let go of the rest. What is possibly most important, is that we are mindful of how and why we may label others and indeed, ourselves, too.