Friday, February 3, 2017

The Problem With Labels

I've been struggling with this issue for quite some time, but in the last few months it has become
more apparent than ever.  The issue is I hate labels, no not the kind you use to mail a package or sew inside your clothing, but the labels used to categorize people.  I know hate is a strong word and I try not to use it, I honestly wish there was something stronger to use  in this case as I'm not sure that hate clearly articulates how much I really, really don't like labels.

There are many words that describe who I am, either now or in my past

  • Human
  • Blogger
  • Photographer
  • Teacher
  • World traveler
  • Geek
  • Bookworm
  • Mother
  • Daughter
  • Wife

These are just a few, but none of these define who I am as a person.  They are but a small part of who I am.  All of these labels aren't the problem.  The problem is the bias and perception that rears its head when people hear a label and they automatically assume they know everything about you.

Labels bias our perceptions, thinking and behavior.  Before, you take offense bias isn't always a bad thing.  It is a natural part of human behavior. The brain is constantly looking for ways to process information.  One way to do this is to look for patterns to categorize things with labels for easy recall. The problem is there are always exception to the rule, but some people don't take those exceptions into account.   "I met one person who was a {fill in the blank} therefore everybody in this category is just like them."   How do you know from a sample size of one whether you met the rule or an exception to the rule?  

I normally try to ignore when I encounter biases based on labels, but lately it seems to be getting worse.   I am a mom.  But labeling me as a mom isn't enough I get sub-categorized as a working mom or an adoptive mom or mom of a special needs child.  Then within each of these groups there are additional labels and classifications. Each label comes with it's own unique set of preconceived notions about what that means.  

I am a female working in the tech industry.   I have held many roles including technical support, client services, sales engineer, product engineering and product marketing.   Each of these roles has required me to possess a high degree of technical knowledge.  Unfortunately when people hear my current title "Director of Product & Solution Marketing"  they assume I am not technical.  At the end of last year I had an article rejected from a publication because I am in marketing and was told in the future have somebody more technical submit an article.   I know I am technical, but I couldn't get past the label and bias associated with my title.   I will continue to encounter this bias and will continue to try to change people's perception of who I am.  

Over the past 15 years I have come to expect this type of bias at work but that doesn't make it less frustrating.  What I am more disheartened by is the pervasiveness of negative labels being used to categorize people with a difference of opinion from our own.  When did being a conservative or a liberal become a bad thing?   How have the definitions of these morphed into something unrecognizable and been turned into derogatory insults.  As soon as a word is uttered in disagreement, you are labeled as a liberal, a "libtard", a conservative, a "deplorable"  or whatever the insult of the day is.   

Broad, sweeping generalizations are damaging and don't allow us to see past a label to an individual.  And unfortunately once a label has been applied it is very difficult to get out from underneath it.   While labels are a natural way for our brain to process information, we need to work hard to ensure that the labels don't morph into damaging, negative stereotypes and a resulting lack of empathy.  

I tell my son on a regular basis that he doesn't have to like everybody he meets but he still needs to treat them with respect.   This is becoming harder to do when we seem to be constantly surrounded by negativity.  I will continue to look for the positives and the good in the world and do my best to fight my bias and see past labels.