‘You Can’t Label People – It’s Just Not Possible’

This week, we're breaking free from our tendency to make snap judgements about strangers. Here, one writer recalls the moment she knew she had to change her ways...

Quite some time ago, I watched a woman cut her nails into a small plastic tub on the train. Before taking a moment to consider why she would be doing so, I mentally labelled her ‘strange’. I continued to purposely avoid catching her eye in case it ended with the (albeit unlikely) outcome of needing to pick nail clippings out of my hair. In hindsight, that was a grossly unfair reaction – and it came down to a snap judgement.

The various reasons as to why she’d need to whip her nail scissors out on a busy train only came to me once she’d put the lid on her plastic tub, manoeuvred past a pair of giggling adults and stepped onto the platform. Once I’d sorted through the reasons as to why she was doing so and reached the possibility that she might be on her way to something that involved interracting with young children, I felt a sense of disappointment. Not in what she was doing or in how she was doing it, but in myself. Why was I so quick to label her as ‘strange’, and how would I feel if I had been labelled so hastily without all of the facts? Perhaps she had labelled me ‘shy’ for not looking in her direction, or maybe she was beyond labelling and had already managed to #BREAKFREE.

All of this, however, occurred to me after the event, and after I had pigeon-holed the clearly hurried woman. It was undoubtedly a light-bulb moment and one that spurred me on to change my attitude. It’s not so much a case of changing an entire personality and instead simply moving to #BREAKFREE from one (very bad) habit.

In a way, it’s an act of arrogance every time someone labels another after forming a quick opinion – it’s saying ‘I know that person as well, if not better, than they know themselves’. Considering labels are most often tagged to the backs of complete strangers, that’s a pretty audacious statement to make!

If I was reminded of anything from watching that particular woman, it’s that everyone is different. Everyone is unique and constantly changing. With this in mind, it’s impossible to label people; you can label things, but never people. Individuals cannot be neatly filed away in containers and anyway, I can’t imagine anyone willingly stepping into a box that provides them with only one adjective to live by.

By labelling someone, we forfeit the chance to discover other facets of their personality – the world is not 2D.

The good news is, all habits can be broken.

From that moment onwards, instead of labelling what is put directly under my nose, I’ve been choosing to open my eyes and my mind. I’ve accepted there will always be more to a person than meets the eye and on no planet will I ever be able to pick people up and place them neatly in plastic tubs with labels on the front.

That only applies to inanimate objects, like nail clippings.

Read more about our #BREAKFREE from Labels week here.

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