Imagine that you’re walking on the sidewalk, in a hurry, and late for an appointment. A dishevelled man with a three day stubble and ripped clothes steps towards you and asks for directions. His speech is a bit slurred, and he might be drunk. How hard would you try to understand what he says? Now, imagine that a man steps towards you who is wearing a Prada suit and asks you the same question in the same way. Would you try harder to understand him? Why?
Maybe it’s because you are labeling the person. Here’s my experience of being on the receiving end of labeling:
I ran a food manufacturing business, and have done every job you can imagine there – everything from delivering food, making fruit swirls, cleaning toilets, and managing a team of employees.
In the first couple of years, I drove a rickety van with huge rust holes, with a coat hanger keeping the muffler in place, while I did deliveries at 5 am in the morning. I was jacked up with coffee, had messy hair, a 3-day stubble, wore an old sweatshirt, and decayed jeans. Nobody could understand me when I did deliveries, but then again I probably looked scary.
A few years later, our business continued to grow successfully, and the rickety van was consigned to the garage in the big sky. I had long stopped doing regular deliveries, but one time our regular driver could not do his deliveries so I had to drop off a couple of orders for him at night. I was on my way home from a party, and stepped out in a black Mercedes wearing a Prada suit to drop off an order for one of our customers.
It was as if a faith healer slapped me on my forehead, and a miracle happened! My speech impediment vaporized, and nobody had any trouble understanding me.
This was a powerful lesson for me, and taught me the power of mislabeling and how it can affect communication so much. In my delivery clothes, people see me as a disabled person who has a severe hearing loss doing a menial job, and that consequently I will be hard to understand.
Deafness is an unknown quantity for numerous people and they can be psyched out when they meet me, especially when they see my hearing aid, and some stereotypes may even come into play. They may look at me as a handicapped person and wonder, “how can I even talk to him as he won’t understand me?” “Can he even speak?”, and my favourite: “does he drool?”
However, when I am well dressed and groomed, these impressions make less sense to them as I look like a successful businessperson who happens to have a hearing impairment.
Although I’ve experienced labeling myself, despite my best efforts, I have also fallen into the trap of labeling others.
HOW TO AVOID LABELING OTHERS?
It is easy to fall into this trap of labeling others. A few things that may help you avoid this pitfall are:
Self-Reflection – be conscious of the times that you have labelled or stereotyped others in the past, and how you may have been wrong. Or even better, be aware of the times you have been a victim of mislabeling. Your own experiences can only make you more wary of mislabeling others.
Get to know the person instead of just as a label – look at the person as a human being with needs, dreams, and desires.
Avoid Assumptions – they can provide you with the wrong information, and give you the incorrect impression.
And last but not, least, have an open mind.
My days as a delivery driver taught me the insidious power of labeling – once you label someone, it becomes harder to understand them as the noise in your mind will get in your way.
And I learned my most important lesson – wearing a Prada suit beats speech therapy any day of the week. It's also a lot cheaper.