Thursday, June 04, 2009


Several years ago I was hanging out with a bunch of rock climbers. A typical subject for climber to talk about is, of course, other rock climbs that they have done. Now if you look in a guidebook you’ll see that each climb has a rating. Not to get too detailed into the rating systems, there are several of them, but suffice it to say that the lower numbers are easier to climb that the higher numbers.
Over time the inadequacies of the rating systems became apparent. Sometimes a route may only have a few feet that are at the higher rating and the rest of the route is not as difficult. In this case the they would add a (-) to the rating to show that the route only has one or two sections that are at the rating and the rest is easier. The flip side of this is when a route consistently has sections at the rating. In this case the route is give a (+) after the number.
Sometimes the climbing itself is given one rating but the nature of the rock does not allow you to protect the route safely. In these cases an R or even an X is added after the rating to express the relative danger of the route.
During this particular conversation we were speculating as to how the rating system used in the US could be improved. I am better at climbs that use cracks for handholds, yet I’m not nearly as good at climbing routes that use thin edges for holds even the route is the same rating as a crack climb that I can do. A crack climb rated at 9 was relatively easy for me compared to a edge climb that was rated 8. The group varied on which form they preferred, but we all agreed that the rating alone was not enough to describe the route. You needed something to tell how sustained the route was, something to describe the danger, and something to describe the type of climbing. Finally one of the group spoke up and said, “Guys, we already have something to do exactly that, the name of the route.” He was right. Every route is a little different than other routes. Even the best rating system could never encapsulate all the information you need to know about that route. Sometimes the ratings were helpful and other times they were not. In the long run it was the reputation and character of the route itself that a climber would use to evaluate it.
I’ve always been very critical of labels, especially when applied to people. I just think that all too often the labels are used as a substitute for getting to know and understand someone a little better. Any label that I could put on a person would be, at best, incomplete. Like the climbing rating system I’d have to add so much more to the label in order to really understand that person. Once a label gets applied to a person I fear that all too often we assume that they adopt all of the stereotypical characteristics of that label. I’ve been victim of exactly this several times. Based on some of my political views friends and family members have given me a label that is, at best, incomplete and all too frequently is a barrier to further understanding. Ironically different friends have given me different labels on different ends of the spectrum.
For several years now I have consciously avoided this type of labelling. As tempting as it may be, even in situations where it may be correct I avoid it. I’ve just seen far too many situations where it was counter -productive. As my climbing buddy pointed out, We already have a very good way to rate and describe, the name. Every person is a little different than every other person. Even the best label could never encapsulate all the information you need to know about that person.


  1. I dislike when generic labels are misapplied to me as well. However, labels and categories are a very useful way for people to optimize cognitive resources. Imagine if every you time you encountered something new, you had to completely evaluate it without applying any of the labels that you are familiar with. Take for instance a climb you've never climbed before. If someone tells you its name, unless you have experience with that climb, you still don't know anything about it. So they begin to describe it for you, telling you what type of rock it is (sandstone, granite), what type of holds to expect (cracks, eyebrows), the angle of the rock face (vertical, overhanging), whether you can set a top rope, or you need to lead climb it, the location, views, etc. Each of these things is a label that helps you understand the climb without having climbed it. Even after you've experienced the climb, the labels are useful to you, because they help you relate it to what you already know. Instead of having to formulate a completely new idea for each type of rock, you start out with the label rock, then you might further label the rock granite, you could even label it further Stone Mountain granite, or Looking Glass granite, or Yosemite granite. They might each have their own unique characteristics, but on some level, they're still all just granite.

    The problem isn't the labels, it's that labels are either misapplied or that a more generic label is applied. Either way, the solution isn't to get rid of labels, it's to make sure the labels that are applied are the most appropriate for you and the people that are applying them.

  2. We all have many labels throughout life - some apply now that didn't apply 20 years ago. Even the other word for labels, namely, descriptions doesn't always fill the bill. We are all very complicated people and no one really knows any of us well enough to give us just one label.

  3. I agree that the problem is not the labels but the misapplication of them. In my experience most labels are used as an an excuse not to think about any other details. Labels are a just tools, but if any tool is misused more often than used correctly at what point do we stop using it?

  4. It's not just your experience. There's plenty of data to suggest that the reason we use labels (schema is the psychological term) is to conserve cognitive resources. If you approached every situation as though it were brand new, you wouldn't be able to do much. With labels we take cognitive shortcuts. In most everything we do, the labels that we have work just fine. When you're at a restaurant, you don't really need to get too detailed about labeling the person taking your order, waiter or waitress is sufficient, and applies pretty much any time you walk into a restaurant. Sure you may have a favorite restaurant, and a favorite waiter, so you'll add or revise the labels as needed. In general waiter is sufficient for a effortless interaction while you focus most of your mental energy on the conversation with your dinner companion.

    There's good evidence to suggest that schemata are a biological function, that we're hard wired for it. You could just as easily say we should do away with emotions as do away with labels.

    The thing about both schemata and emotion, is that we can control them to a certain extent. It takes effort, and most people aren't willing to exert any energy to consciously change. Even if someone were to make the effort, though, you couldn't get rid of labels, all you could do is change the label applied, to either a different one that already exists or a new one.

  5. Suppose business were slow and you got to joking around with the waiter in your scenario. Pretty soon you'd see her as more than just a "waiter". They'd have a name. From then on you'd remember how well "Chris" treated you. Chris would be a person with real emotions and feelings who just happened to have a job as a waiter. But if you insist that your label of "waiter" is correct you deny them the chance to become anything more in your eyes.
    That's pretty much exactly the situation I'm in. To certain people I will never be more than just the "waiter".

  6. The label of waiter is correct. I'm not suggesting that the label completely covers who he is, but it's still useful, and sufficient, to relate with him. In breaking out of the traditional waiter-customer scripts, you've found new labels for him as well, (his name, person with emotions, etc.) and while these help to more accurately identify this person, they still don't give you a complete picture of who he is.

    The problem you're having sounds more like someone has applied the wrong label, or failed to recognize that a label that might have been correct at one time no longer is, or perhaps they've labeled you correctly, but don't have the mental capacity to realize that the label is incomplete or that the things they've associated with that label are incorrect. In any case, you'll either have to take steps to change their way of thinking, or accept that they're wrong and move on. Minds aren't changed easily, and for someone who refuses to see things differently, it usually takes constant reinforcement, or one big bold dramatic measure.

  7. You've hit the crux of my issue. My constant reinforcement seems to always fall on deaf ears. I guess I'm just going to have to accept that some people just don't want to understand me any better than their misapplied label.
    This whole situation just makes me sad because this is a barrier to me being able to understand them better.