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When we only see someone as a 'label', in many ways they become dead to us....

This page looks at the impact of using labels to describe people on effective communication. When we ascribe a label to someone we are at risk of making assumptions about what they think and feel. Having made that assumption we may never then consider it necessary to explore whether it is true or not. This can then form the root of prejudice, stereotypes and 'fixed' views about different categories of people.

Labels - Written for the Principle Focus section - Newsletter 2

See also, Principle 7 of Effective Communication:
That we challenge the behaviour and not the person which discusses this issue further.

We cannot communicate at all without some level of conceptualising or labelling of the world around us. When I say the word 'tree' it covers an incredible diversity of different forms of vegetation and even if I sub-divide the category 'tree' into oaks and pines and beech and maple etc., I am still only able to describe general features seen amongst that type of tree. The label is not sufficient to describe an individual tree.

It could be an oak tree. It may be a tall oak tree. It may be a tall oak tree with 35 branches. It may be a tall oak tree with 35 branches, 2 of which spread out on the south side of the tree and which are both over 1 metre in circumference.

But we could then start to look at the colour of the leaves which we could simply describe as green.....or even dark green. And we could observe that only last week they were emerging as new leaves and had a lighter more yellowy tinge to them.

And we could say more.....but I won't here.


This article is written by Alan Sharland, Director of
CAOS Conflict Management, London, UK

So what started as 'tree' suddenly becomes a much more detailed experience than the word originally implies. But often, in conversation I will just use the word 'tree' because it gives a common reference point for a discussion. It may not seem necessary to say more about it than its label.

And so it is with people. When we say someone is 'racist' we think we know what that means but in fact we haven't even begun to understand or tried to experience who that person is as a human being.

When we say someone is 'a Muslim' or 'a man' or 'a woman' or 'disabled', or 'the boss' the same is true. And it also applies if we hold, or have been told, labels such as 'arrogant', 'patronising', 'a bully' etc. about a person.

How does this impact upon the effectiveness of our communication and the effectiveness of our conflict resolution if there is a difficulty?

There are many communication 'techniques' taught on many courses which actively rely on these stereotypes to be unexplored which, rather than promote effective communication, they reinforce such stereotypes. It is as if communication is a 'science' and that we all react the same within the labels ascribed to us.

So what's the problem with that?

Well, if I were to believe such stereotypes I would assume that I know things about the people who I see as fitting them and would never make the effort to engage with them to find out if the stereotype is actually true. I would be dealing with a concept in my head and not the human being standing in front of me.

I once attended a 'Cultural Awareness' training session designed to enable predominantly 'white' people (and what do we mean by that?) to understand 'non-white' people (and what do we mean by that?). It was proposed in the session that when meeting with an Asian family (and what do we mean by that?) we should not give eye contact to the females in the family and that it is likely that we would always have to defer to the male of the household in order to prevent causing offence.

There were many bland assumptions and stereotypes which inhibit effective communication contained within that experience, and here are a few:

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At the time I was working as a teacher in Camden, London, and many of the pupils in my classes were Bangladeshi girls and girls from other Asian cultures.


Believe me, they could hold eye contact, without being intimidated or offended!

As could their mothers when they came in for Parent's Evenings.

If I'd believed the stereotype - and I've heard many professionals advocate the approach - then I would have cut off my potential connection with those Asian women before it even had a chance to be established. This could, in itself, have reinforced the sense of anonymity which some say they often feel. No one seems to want to acknowledge them!

As well as this it could have led me to feel that the community I worked with was 'closed' and restricted with respect to direct communication. This is a common cause of the kinds of resentments some people feel towards people from 'other cultures' when someone else tells them they can't do this, that, or the other in their presence.

Take for example a present assumption that people of 'other cultures' are offended by the sending of Christmas cards.

Despite many Muslim organisations - who are the main ones who have been 'volunteered' to be offended by Christmas cards - saying that they do not find it offensive at all, there are some organisations that now have it as a policy not to use terms such as 'HAPPY CHRISTMAS' when sending a....... card in December.

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I have a black friend who was in a canteen queue with her Social Work course lecturer, who was white, and the lecturer asked for 'coffee without milk', rather than black coffee as she felt it was not ok to ask for black coffee.

The awkwardness and paranoia that ensues from the uninvestigated assumptions that we associate with particular labels, is, in itself a major cause of breakdown in communication and a source of destructive responses to conflict.

And consider the stereotype that the male of the Asian family should always be deferred to. I'm not for one minute going to say that there is not a presence of patriarchy in some Asian families. But it reinforces the stereotype when we 'pre-train' individuals and professionals that these things exist rather than support them in being able to respond openly and with awareness of their preconceptions in any situation.

There are many 'white' families where it could be said the male is the person who 'deals with things' while the woman always defers to him. (And of course there are many where the opposite is true.)

The point is that for effective communication to occur, we need to be able to deal with any situation as it presents itself to us.

Do we have a conscious awareness of our labels when we meet with other people?

Do we keep those preconceptions and not explore whether they are true or not?

Unfortunately, when training in communication skills and conflict resolution skills focuses on gaining knowledge of 'how women like to speak', 'how men like to speak', 'how black people like to speak'..... we are loading ourselves up with labels, making it harder to let go of them when we actually meet these people.

Men can't express their feelings and don't like to talk.

If you see someone in a meeting who has their arms folded, it means they don't like what is being said.

Women feel more at home in the kitchen and being with children.

Add your own.....

Ultimately, however, we are responsible for whether we challenge the things we are told about others, or the things we tell ourselves, based on the labels we have for them. And that label can be as simple as 'man', 'woman', 'black', 'white', 'old', 'young', 'racist', 'bully', 'victim', 'partner' etc.

Are we always willing to explore the 'detail' of who they are and what they think or feel, with them, rather than assume we know them from the label we have for them?

Labels inhibit effective communication, if we let them.

But they don't have to.



Try this Exercise from our Mediator Training Course, which is used to explore the stereotypes and labels we create about others.




Return from Labels to the Home page........or........


......go from Labels to the related page, Principle 7: That we challenge the behaviour and not the person.........

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