On labels: A deliberately controversial post

Since y’all seem interested in talking about labels, we thought we’d give you the opportunity.

Gifted, fat, frugal, cheap, rich, poor, pretty, female, black, midwestern, Jersey…

The brain needs to categorize things.  That’s why mental accounts work so well for public finance.  Labels help humans organize the world around them.  We’re more than the sum of our labels, but people have a hard time perceiving others without them, at least until they get well-acquainted.

We contend that it’s not the label… it’s what people do with it.

Labels can be used for good.  The can help people get the help they need.   When you have a disease or syndrome, it’s nice to have a diagnosis even if there’s no cure. They can tell us about differences between groups.  And they can help human brains make sense of large amounts of information.

Labels can be used for evil.  They can be used to pigeon-hole people into categories and stereotypes.  They can cause people cognitive dissonance, or to try to become something they wouldn’t be without the label.  People can treat those with labels in ways they shouldn’t be treating anybody.  Mislabeling can cause problems too.

So, what do you think:  Are all labels bad?  Are labels necessary?  When?  What would a world without labels look like?  Have you ever been in a situation in which having a label helped or hurt you?

37 Responses to “On labels: A deliberately controversial post”

  1. scantee Says:

    I think the problem is when labels move from being descriptive to prescriptive. After some amount of time a word that was used simply to categorize slowly takes on more cultural meaning which can exert a force greater than just the word itself. It’s easier to think of negative examples of this, like “retarded” or various ethnic slurs, but there are also positive ones too. There’s certainly a long history of slurs being reappropriated by groups as way to take away their destructive power.

    Personal identity construction is a pretty large part of creating a life in the western world. A lot of these labels are sort of meaningless other than as a way for people to assert their identities and find others who they consider their people. That sounds negative but I don’t mean it to be a value judgement. Absent traditional community ties it’s a legitimate way for people to find a place where they belong.

    (Totally out of my comfort zone on this one.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Descriptive vs. prescriptive is a great way to frame this. Thanks for that thought!

    • PQA Says:

      Really interesting discussion, maybe a danger also is when labels are used to be predictive? Like if a person is fat then this predicts that they will be a lazy sloppy person. Which is obviously not true. But if you say Mr. X is fat, people often will take that to mean Mr. X is also lazy and messy. This seems especially true for female descriptives to me. For example, saying someone is cute and perky (like Grace’s sister) also means that they are not serious or smart. So sometimes “positive” labels for women actually have negative consequences. Even though being perky doesn’t seem to be on the surface a bad thing. Huh. New thoughts for me to cogitate on. Thanks!

  2. Liz Says:

    There is a nice TED talk related to this topic called “The danger of a single story” by Chimamanda Adichie. The line that really stuck with me is: The problem with labels/stereotypes is not necessarily that they are incorrect but that they are incomplete.

    We will always label people for mental ease of grouping and understanding, but need to be careful that the label does not come to represent the entirety of the individual.

  3. Grace Says:

    I always think of my baby sister’s example. She was ‘cute,’ ‘perky,’ and ‘popular’ while we were growing up (can you see why I hated her?). What she was not, was ‘smart’–that was MY label, along with “fat’ and all the painful words that accomany an overweight child. Those labels followed her well into college. But an economics professor talked her into applying to a graduate school that was facing a civil rights lawsuit for its failure to enroll women–for that one year (1972), the graduate school (specialiizing in international business) suspended its GRE requirements for selected women. However, once she got there, no one knew that she wasn’t ‘smart.’ In fact, the assumption was that she had passed her GRE and had gotten good grades, just like everyone else there. Big surprise–she stepped into new labels that included words like “bright” and ‘competent’ and, occasionally, ‘brilliant.’ She just retired after 30+ years as an executive vice president of a major bank–no one has labeled her as cute and perky for decades. (Fortunately, I got over my jealousy along the way but she will always be my BABY sister!)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      She’s a good baby sister too!

    • hush Says:

      Your comment reminds me of an excellent book “Siblings Without Rivalry,” and some of the mislabeling that often occurs in families with more than one child. One kid gets to be “the athlete,” another “the brain,” kind of like “The Breakfast Club” – I can see how this can have some unfortunate, self-limiting consequences.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Although my sister was the athlete, we compensated for that by labeling her with our family name… All LASTNAMES must be able to do math. Period. We value math in our family.

  4. First Gen American Says:

    I’ve been labeled both a “technical person” and a “commercial person”, both labels assume you can’t do the other function. People who’ve known me since my technical days still think I’m a technical person even though I’ve been in commercial roles longer than technical roles. Same goes for people who are newer to my company. They assume I am not technical because I’m in a sales/marketing role. It’s really interesting. There are both positive and negative assumptions that go with each of these labels and I guess the real trick would be to be able to control what labels people put on you. I suppose some of that is managed by your executive presence and junk like that.

    It’s hard not to label people..I know I do it all the time and I think people tend to default to labeling others in relation to what’s important to them. When my father in law was still alive, he put people into 2 buckets. They were either a worker or they weren’t. All else flowed down from that level one categorization. Luckily, when he met me, he told his son “she’s a worker”…so I was good in his book.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I wonder why you can’t be both technical and commercial… I guess most people can only specialize in one.

      We get a lot of students who have labeled themselves as bad at math (but good at writing), and we have to strip off that label. Because there are a lot of people who don’t do math… and a lot of jobs for people who can.

      • First Gen American Says:

        It’s obviously possible to be both, but people assume that if you excel at one, then you’re just getting by with the other. I think it’s partly because different skill sets are involved. With commercial, you have to do a lot of big picture thinking, create strategies, etc. With technical, you have to get into the weeds so you don’t miss stuff. It’s hard for people to grasp that an individual can switch back and forth between these two very different ways of working. In reality, most people are wired to be more proficient at one thing vs the other. I’m more of an 80/20 gal myself, so getting down the the knatt’s ass on something is usually work I leave for my PhD product developers.

        I think it’s good to stretch one’s boundaries. That’s why I started blogging….to shed that stigma of being a technical person that’s bad at writing. You really can do anything and be decent at it with enough practice. Yes, you may not reach superstar levels, but you can get better than the average joe just with some practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s juggling or conflict resolution…practice makes perfect.

  5. PQA Says:

    An interesting one for me as a middle-eastern person (I won’t say what country to try keep my pseudo-anonymity) is Muslim. People assume because I am middle-eastern that I am Muslim, often without asking, and even when I directly say I am NOT muslim. They then move on to assuming that I am culturally Muslim. It causes much cognitive dissonance for people. This is especially a huge problem when I travel overseas to developing countries. The idea that I do not have and was not raised with a faith, and am still a polite nice person, is not comprehendible to a lot of people. It leaves me without a label which makes people very uncomfortable.

  6. Jacq Says:

    I haven’t read enough about the Piraha tribe in South America – but I think they may have that kind of culture where there are no labels.
    ie. (talking about them watching King Kong): “They’re not generalizing about the character of giant apes,” he pointed out. “They’re reacting to the immediate action on the screen with direct assertions about what they see.”


    With respect to labels helping or hurting, I can’t really control what labels other people put on me. If they’re bad, they’re wrong and if they’re good, they’re right. :-)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Huh. Interesting article.

      • Jacq Says:

        His book was pretty good too. And it was a little less technical than the article so a “dummy about linguistics, and anthropology, and sociology” (like me!) could understand the culture a little bit more easily. Although I still don’t get it. Guess you had to be there.

  7. becca Says:

    “We contend that it’s not the label… it’s what people do with it.”
    Labels can be useful or useless, depending on how they are applied. And almost all can be positive or negative, depending on context. But some are really “nicer” labels than others (yes, I just implied we can label labels. /meta).
    I suspect this is easier to say “it’s not the label it’s what people do with it” when you were labeled “gifted” than if you are labeled “retarded”.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Professionals don’t use the label “retarded” anymore. That’s now considered an epithet or a slur. The label “Downs Syndrome” can help people get help to get services and the best advantages they can, but can also pigeonhole. Same with other specific syndromes and diseases.

      Labels like ADHD or dyslexic can be very helpful (though they can also be problematic if used inappropriately). The label PCOS was incredibly helpful when trying to figure out why one of our bodies is broken, and the other one of us would like to know *why* she has extreme fatigue. Labels can bring understanding and help.

      Retarded doesn’t actually convey much useful information. Just like “smart” doesn’t really convey much useful information. When used effectively instead of just as substitutes for smart or dumb, other kinds of labels about learning abilities and disabilities can help and can explain why people are having problems and can more easily provide standardized methods that other people with the same problems have used to effectively deal with those problems.

      • becca Says:

        I am well aware a competent professional would not use that particular label (nor would I apply it to an individual). But it is certainly still in use- and it’s a good example of a label few would want. Epithets or slurs are like other labels- they only are what they are because of what people have done with them- but that doesn’t mean they should be used uncritically.
        It’s morally ok, although sometimes unwise, to use any category and any label you like for yourself. But not all labeling of others is morally ok.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Gifted isn’t its opposite label then. Perhaps you’re looking for “egghead,” “brainiac,” “nerd,” “dork,” “geek,” “bookworm,” “elitist,” or just plain “loser.” (Or related epithets from people who don’t quite understand what they’re saying, “queer,” “freak,” “fag,” etc.)

      • becca Says:

        I didn’t mean to imply it was an opposite label.It does not, in fact, have an opposite label.

        If I told you it’s easier to be more comfortable with labels if you are labeled “white” than if you are labeled “n*gger” would that clarify anything, or is that too inflammatory?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That is again a dichotomy that isn’t correct and doesn’t make sense (except that, based on our reading of your previous commenting history, you were possibly trying to offend us by either subtly saying we don’t understand our privilege, but doing it with a false dichotomy that creates a straw-man, or just trying to punish us for being awesome, which we refuse to apologize for despite the fact that we’re female and not culturally allowed to be awesome under the patriarchal system we are fighting against). White as opposed to “cracker” if you’re trying to say neutral value label vs. negative value label. White as opposed to Black if you’re trying to keep things more technical.

        Also, we don’t appreciate you putting that offensive word on our blog. It has been censored for you.

        Being labeled “smart” in the US education system is also not necessarily a good thing, at least say grades 5-12. You end up with people trying to squash you down. Actually, apparently it doesn’t end with school either. Anti-intellectualism seems to be highly prevalent on the internets as well, as you frequently show us.

      • Kellen Says:

        Hmm, but maybe Becca has a point in that if you’re on the “good” side of a label, you don’t really notice the labeling as much. Maybe think about “gay” vs “straight” – if you’re straight, the label is not such an issue, and doesn’t even get brought up much, it’s just assumed. If you’re gay, you might notice that the label is used more to imply something about you, even in a context where your sexual orientation is irrelevant. (It’s irrelevant in most contexts unless you are interested in dating someone…) So if you’re gay, you’ll find yourself in more situations where labels are applied to you and misused, whereas if you’re straight, you might assume labeling of sexual orientation is not a big deal, since it doesn’t affect your life as much. Neither label is “nicer” in this case, as both are simply names for a sexual orientation, but one is misused to imply many more things about a person.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Sure, but that wasn’t the example she gave.

        Gay vs. Straight is a good example of that idea, as negative terms for straight people (or anybody in most majorities) have not really caught on. We generally think of people in the majority as being more diverse, especially if we are members of that majority ourselves– we know how we’re different than other people with the same label when we see lots of different people with the same label.

      • becca Says:

        Sorry about using that word here. FWIW, my personal ethical stance is that it’s unacceptable to use to apply to people, but valid to discuss uncensored. Still, if you don’t want it on your blog that’s a perfectly understandable choice- I won’t write it here uncensored again.
        Anyway, I wasn’t trying to offend you, I was trying to illustrate my point, which is that “some labels are offensive” (it is only in the most technical sense true that these labels are only offensive because of what people do with them).

        It’s also interesting to note that there is an element of privilege- the labels for minorities tend to carry a lot more negative associations.That’s worth considering why you see so much emotion when people reject the idea of “labels”.

        I don’t believe any of that is a reason to not use any labels, but I do believe these are collectively ample reasons to be extremely careful how we label other people.

  8. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I went to the doctor/ENT yesterday. Although I have MA, I came in to see the doctor on Medicare. I think he assumed “ignorant, uneducated, unaware” when he was treating me under the Medicare “insurance plan.” He described my problem as “excitable nose” when things are breathed into it. Hmmm. I do know the term perrennial allergic rhinitis. I am familiar with mixed, allergic, and vasomotor rhinitis. He never used a word that a third grader would not know. I have never been treated so dismissively by a physician. I just posted this on my blog today and won’t repeat it all here.

    THEN, I went to Office Max and was referred to as “this girl needs help.” I am 65 and may look younger, but it has been a long time since anyone seriously referred to me as a “girl.” I laughed at his remark and noted I am old. He said he meant it as a compliment. The young man behind me in line agreed with his cohort. Oh well. He was very helpful, so being a “girl” worked out okay.

    I bristle at labels that are hurtful and endure the ones that help, even if they are totally out of line. I obliquely protested to the doctor and outright laughed and protested the the two young, young “boys” in OM.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I am impressed with you for being able to laugh. I would be SO MAD. A man called me “kid” on campus the other day. I almost murdered him, but instead I ignored him. I should have said, “That’s PROFESSOR Kid to you, Mr. Jerkass.”

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        I was seething when I heard him refer to me as a “girl.” At first, I was going to let it pass, but I could not lose the opportunity to try to teach these boys, barely older than my grandson something, anything, even just open a corner of their minds and let an idea in. I made my point about being called a “girl,” but they both were so serious and seriously nice young men, respectful. There was just no time to explain it further to them. The laugh was more derisive than jovial, like I was enjoying the “compliment,” as they called it when I was called “girl” by them. Oh, I almost imploded but considered that I was feverish and angry at the doctor and my wrath would do nothing to help them understand or to help me get over the doctor. Yes, I know their respect was putting me on a pedestal of sorts, confining, defining, and ignoring me. Some days, you have to pick your battles.

  9. Cloud Says:

    I generally think labels can be useful, for the reasons you’ve outlined in the post and comments- in particular, I find medical diagnoses to be useful, even when they come with potential stigma.

    But I do think that people get lazy/sloppy when labeling, and that can be very harmful for people, particularly when the labels are about abilities. However, just changing the label doesn’t help. Retarded, for instance, was once the “sensitive” label (I forget what it replaced). I don’t think “developmentally delayed” is really all that much better, or more useful.

    So maybe the key is to have precise labels, and to remember, as someone upthread said, that labels rarely (if ever) tell the whole story about a person.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great points.

      “Learning disabled” can be helpful if you then know what the learning disability is. I like the idea of disabilities because disabilities can be compensated for, and in some cases overcome (or at least mitigated) with intensive appropriate treatment. It’s more of the growth mindset rather than the fixed mindset. There are ways to compensate for dyslexia or dyscalculia (or ADHD, or autism etc.), and we’re learning more all the time about how to diagnose, compensate for, and treat these kinds of disabilities. (Or differing abilities, I think is the latest PC term… “differently abled,” though that gets into the argument about whether you want to treat something like autism or focus on the benefits it brings like with Temple Grandin.)

  10. Kellen Says:

    Wow. Lots of interesting food for thought here.
    So labels are useful for grouping things, like we call the group of furniture that you sit on “chairs” which helps our brain identify which objects are for sitting on, even if two items we call “chairs” look very different.
    It make sense that we would also automatically apply this to people. We have men and women. Grown ups and children and elders.

    The label “child” for example, is useful because it helps us know what to expect from a person that is below a certain age. You might guess that their small motor skills are not practiced enough for wielding sharp knives in the kitchen maybe. However, not all children are going to conform to those expectations, and there are some children out there who could do great work with a chopping knife. So even in this essential case, you could say that the label is causing harm, and limiting what a perfectly able child is allowed to do.

    The label sets up an initial expectation but the problem is when you don’t move beyond that expectation – when the child has proved themselves responsible and adept in the kitchen, if you still keep assuming that they can’t be trusted, that’s when the label is being misused.

    In FirstGen’s example – being commercial vs. technical. This label can be useful so that people can quickly assess your skills and what they can ask you to do. Perhaps *most* people who go into the technical field don’t get the time/opportunity to also practice building commercial skills and vice versa. Upon encountering FirstGen though, after getting to know her, another person *should* adjust their initial expectation, and assess her skills more appropriately. The label is “misused” when someone refuses to pass technical work, or speak in technical terminology with FirstGen because they refuse to accept that she can handle it.

    That’s all I’ve got for now.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great points! We need mental accounts less as we get to know people… or rather, we put them in more detailed and smaller boxes. Eventually a person gets his or her own unique set…

  11. Debbie M Says:

    Yes, labels are vital. Without them, we couldn’t get stuff done at all. I wake up with an alarm clock. It doesn’t have a snooze bar. Finally, my bladder gets uncomfortable so I head for the toilet. “Alarm clock,” “snooze bar,” and “toilet” are labels that usually work perfectly. Of course they are not complete. Sometimes you find a toilet and you can’t figure out how to flush it, so the “toilet” label isn’t good enough. Sometimes a two year old overgeneralizes and calls all four-legged creatures “doggy.” Yes, some of our labels turn out to be despicable. But I can’t imagine a world without labels. I LOOOOVE language and communication, and that’s made out of words, and words are basically just labels.

    Like everyone, some labels have hurt me and some have helped me. I got labeled “smart” early on, and that helped me with my self esteem since I also felt quite lacking in many other areas. Also, as a kid I was quiet, tiny, and cute, and so people assumed I was “sweet” and treated me well. I actually was sweet, but they had no evidence of that. If I had been quiet and ugly, people might have assumed I was stuck up and treated me poorly. Also, as an adult I got labeled as having good credit which let me get a loan to buy a house (even though I was a scrawny single female with a mediocre job).

    As an adult, being scrawny and young-looking got me labeled as “not a good disciplinarian,” which kept me from getting any job offers teaching secondary school. (Actually, I’m not totally sure that’s a bad thing, after all. Same with not being allowed to sign up for a class in LISP (a computer language), possibly because women can’t do that, though officially because that course is for computer science majors, not social science majors. Same with being labeled a “data” person because I’m a degree audit specialist and therefore I’m probably not good academic advising material even though I’m always translating degree audit minutia to non-data-loving people.)

    Being a bureaucrat has definitely inspired some computer science guys with whom I was playing ultimate frisbee to write me off as intellectually dead. And having worked at one after-school-tutoring place once got me labeled as the sort who couldn’t handle the philosophy at a different after-school-tutoring place.

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