The Real Problem Behind Labels

There’s this mainstream idea that “labels are bad”, and “you shouldn’t label people”. I think it’s absolutely true, but that we do a terrible job of explaining what that phrase actually means. Here’s my attempt at offering my point of view on the subject. 

Go back to when you were a kid. Now, you just snuck candies in your room without your parents noticing (let’s say they told you not to do it). Your parents ask you where all the candies went. You say you don’t know. They ask if you ate it. You say no. They ask if you took it. No again. Then they find the candies in your room.

At this point, your parents could easily use the dreaded term: “liar”, and tell you to not be a liar. Here’s the huge problem with that: we’re all liars. From an innocent “Yes, that looks good so on you”, to telling yourself “I swear I’ll start working after that one episode”, to saying you didn’t do your homework because you “didn’t have time”, yet finished half a season of Dexter during the weekend, it’s a part of our daily lives. And using the term “liar” makes it seem like there are only 2 alternatives: being an evil liar, or only always saying the truth, the “good” option. Which is false. You don’t tell your friend who just lost their dog that “it’s okay, dogs live less than humans anyway, it was about time he died”. It’s not “nice”, and wouldn’t be considered “good”, yet, it’s the truth.

We lie all the time, big or small, to ourselves or others, but we aren’t “liars”. Those lies are not always “bad”. Saying “I’m sorry” when learning about someone in your class who’s grandfather just died is not mean at all, yet you may not care 100% of the time, because people die everyday, and her grandpa was 93. It’s still a nice thing to say, and not big “E” liE, but one that’s meant to reassure someone you probably feel empathy towards. 

An additional reason why calling someone a liar, cheater, bad student and more is a terrible idea is the way we associate with labels. If you call someone a liar, that sticks with them. Although their lie might have been a one time thing, let them hear it a couple of time and the term will become a small but noticeable part of their person. The “bad student” example explains this really well. I’ve seen a countless number of my friends putting themselves down simply because they haven’t been getting straight A’s students their whole life, and their parents, sometimes teacher (but a big part is themselves) are there to remind them of that. Those teenagers might then think they are bad students, which is probably absolutely false. Like the term “liar”, the word “student” means more than just what we associate it with. A student learns, likes to learn, and strives for knowledge instead of just sit in a class and earn grades to go to college, get a job and be able to stop learning. Maybe that teenager isn’t seeing their A in Art, and the fact that it’s the only class they really like and feel excited about. Why? “Because art won’t get them to college”. Screw that, welcome to the internet. And that’s just one example, maybe you like to play an instrument, math, video editing, building chairs, are really good with people, I don’t know! The thing is, telling yourself you’re a “bad student” is probably untrue, and is certainly not going to help. Maybe the problem is just that you haven’t found what “thing” you want to be a student in. Or you have, but it’s video games, and you don’t think that there’s anything to learn, create, or get out of the entire subject. Which is absolutely false.

So if your sibling, daughter, son, or friend ends up doing something you don’t like but want them to stop that behavior, don’t call them a liar. Instead, ask them to “be honest with me next time”, don’t tell them to “stop being a liar”, or “don’t be a liar”. Because once you tell people what you like them doing -being honest- and make sure they don’t feel attacked when you tell them, is the moment they will actually hear you out.

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