Limiting Labels: Judge Less, Understand More

As humans, we’re driven to categorize and label ourselves and others to understand how we fit together and how we differ from each other.

Labels aren’t inherently bad—just like comparison isn’t bad either. But we’re also quick to place negative value judgments with labels and that’s where labels become limiting and stifling.

One of the biggest lessons I learned while teaching ESL was the following:

Reserve judgment and don’t take things personally

In American classrooms, for example, students show they’re paying attention to the teacher by making eye contact. When an American teacher (e.g., me) has Chinese students who aren’t making eye contact, her first gut reaction is “these students aren’t paying attention to me.”

And her first judgment would be WRONG.

In China, attentive students don’t make eye contact with teachers. By slapping the label “inattentive” on a student because they’re not making eye contact, we unfairly categorize the student as something they’re not—and reveal a lack of understanding or foresight that not everyone acts the same way we do.

I quickly learned to stick to the facts (students aren’t making eye contact) and strove to seek the reasoning behind people’s actions (that’s THEIR culture) rather than automatically labeling the students (they’re inattentive). It allowed me to deal with my students positively (no accusations of being distracted) and provide them the tools to be successful as they moved onto college classes (“In university classes, make eye contact with the professor to show you’re paying attention”).

We’re quick to judge people’s actions by how we would act—and it leads to misunderstandings and frustration

Many ESL students become frustrated when they’re unfairly labeled as inattentive or misbehaving when they do something that’s perfectly acceptable in their culture. They’re frustrated because they don’t know or understand why they’re “bad” and no one’s explained what the “proper” way of behaving is.

And frustrated students lead to a tense and unproductive classroom environment.

Slapping labels on people doesn’t lead to quality, understanding relationships unless you use those labels to help you understand why a person acts the way she does.

I like attaching the label “HSP” to myself because it gives me insight to how I react and how I can work to minimize my anxieties surrounding social situations. I’m not aloof at social events; I’m struggling against overwhelm by all the stimulation. I’m not quiet because I dislike the people I’m with; I’m quiet because I’m not quite sure how to break into the conversation or I’m waiting for someone to draw me in.

But I also get really frustrated when I see people withdraw from me because they don’t understand my silence. And if I get frustrated enough, I give up. I lose out on relationships and those people lose out on knowing me—because I have plenty of thoughts, opinions, and favorite discussion topics I’m happy to share with the people I know will appreciate them.

Sticking people in boxes limits your interactions with them and places unfounded and wrong expectations on them. People are quick to believe the negative things people say about them. If you tell a student he’s inattentive enough, eventually he’ll live up to your expectations. I grew up thinking that I’m deficient for being introverted and quiet. No one gave me the tools to compete in a world that’s biased toward outgoing people; they just wrote me off.

“You’re quiet” someone once told me, in the kind of tone that said, “You’re weird.” All it did was drive me back into my shell. Is quiet what happens when you don’t talk? Thanks for clarifying the obvious.

When I told students to make eye contact in American university classes because it shows the professor they’re paying attention, I also avoided discussions of what’s right or wrong. There’s no right or wrong in this situation, only how students need to behave to achieve success.

Because my students don’t need to be told whether they’re paying attention or not—they know that. They need the tools and information necessary to adjust their behavior for success in a college context.

People don’t need to be told what they are or why it’s bad or wrong or more difficult to succeed. They need to be understood for who they are and why they act the way they do—and how to leverage that for success.

Seek to understand and assist, not judge and pigeonhole.


2 thoughts on “Limiting Labels: Judge Less, Understand More

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