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Peeling Off the Labels

3 December 2008 No Comment

I had some fun role-playing at a workshop for trainers I was leading last week. Some of the group wanted to practice a ’selling’ conversation with a businessman to attract interest in a training course. I took the part of a 50 year old guy (this really stretched my acting skills!!!) with suit, tie, brief case and a hard shell to crack. A bit of play, some serious conversations and some great learning. Then at the end of the day one person told me how helpful the exercise had been because:

“for the first time in my life I realised that businessmen are human beings. I’d never been able to see that before.”

Any businessmen reading this? Any businesswomen? We knew all along that the label ‘businessperson’ hides many a warm, cuddly, sensitive individual. Well, now the truth is out and it’s official. Business people are human too!

This got me thinking and out of my overworked brain I’m going to make a bold and dramatic statement!

Every single label obscures our humanness

Now I admit that they do have some limited uses.

* Keep things tidy and ordered (and, therefore, much loved by bureaucratic systems the world over)

* Help us identify with groups of similarly labelled individuals to give us a sense of belonging or shared interest. (’So, you’re a father too! I’m sure you’ll agree that we need to bring back corporal punishment in school.‘)

* Identify common ground when conversing with a stranger and avoid those embarrassing moments when we can’t think of what to say (’Ah. So you’re English! Do you know xxx xxxxx. She’s a friend of mine who lives in Newcastle.’).

That’s about it, as far as I can see.

On the other hand, labels categorise us, pigeon-hole us and make it hard to see who we really are. They tell us WHAT we are and not WHO we are and have the effect, if we are not very careful, of turning us into objects or things.

Someone once said to me ‘You are such a typical Englishman‘, and this was within about 10 minutes of first meeting me. That was it! Within a few minutes I’d been analysed, categorised (objectified) and filed away. No need to find out anything more about me … just consult the manual and look up ‘Typical Englishman’ and there would be everything there was to know about me.

Hmmm! Really?

In fact she quite liked people from England so was well disposed towards me. Something about the police not carrying guns and our sense of humour (though I’m not sure if she meant Monty Python or Benny Hill). We might have a had a very different conversation if she’d been brought up to believe that Englishmen are evil scum and need to be driven off the face of the Earth (any people from France reading this?). I have a theory that most acts of violence can be traced back to some label that carries a similar message. It’s much harder to inflict pain on someone when we see them as human beings rather than as objects. Those who ran the Death Camps during the Second War knew this very well.

The problem is each label carries with it certain expectations and attributes taken from a generalisation and taken down to the individual. They tell us little or nothing about the person and a whole lot about expectations and generalisations. This obscures who we are from other people and the more they believe the stories about the labels the more opaque we become.

Labels keep us as strangers so peel them off and show the real you.

Next post I’m planning an exercise you can do to examine this in more depth.

By the way, that’s me in the picture (on the left!) with Maya, daughter of my dear friend Ania!

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