Labelling anything is only ever of limited value. Labelling a product, diagnosing an ailment, naming types of weather are all essential to effective communication and understanding of course, but as labels tend to stick they can quickly become confused with the character of the thing being labelled. They can also prevent enquiry (once we know what something is, why look any further?).

Labels are judgements, and we tend not to examine our judgements. As Hayakawa says, one of the consequences of hasty judgements in everyday thought “is the temporary blindness they induce” (1990 p. 27). For example, when we have to work with someone whose behaviour challenges us or thwarts our efforts it is only natural that we start to think of them as a ‘Difficult Person’. Equally, labelling an activity in the same way can lead us to start of on the back foot when approaching a similar activity in the future.

Acknowledging something as difficult when we’ve struggled with it is natural and OK, and it can be advantageous because it helps build self-esteem. Generalising the difficulty to all events or, in the case of a person, attributing it to their character, is not. It can prevent us from taking a fresh perspective and, because our behaviour tends to align itself with our beliefs, influence how we approach the person or thing we have so-labelled.

In itself this is not a problem; we have simply categorised them based on our experience. But it becomes a problem when, instead of seeing John or Mary as someone whose difficult behaviour we find hard to deal with, we look no further than the label we have given them and act on our judgement instead.

Where people are concerned, labelling someone else disempowers us because it limits our view and so restricts the range possibilities we allow ourselves.

See also:

>Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action