Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation #5 – Avoiding Labels, Insults and Sweeping Generalizations

A label is a mask life wears.

                We put labels on life all the time. “Right,” “wrong,” “success,’ “failure,” “lucky,” “unlucky,” may be as limiting a way of seeing things as “diabetic,” “epileptic,” “manic-depressive,” or even “invalid.” Labeling sets up an expectation of life that is often so compelling we can no longer see things as they really are. This expectation often gives us a false sense of familiarity toward something that is really new and unprecedented. We are in a relationship with our expectations and not with life itself.

– Rachel Naomi Remen

Now, substitute in Dr. Remen’s quotation marks above words like conservative, liberal, progressive, socialist, feminist, elite, facist and any number of other labels that attempt to capture ethnic, national, sexual, skin pigmentation and other group classifications. Notice which of these substitute labels you’re sure you understand accurately, and once you’ve done that get curious about what you might be missing each time you rely on the label rather than doing the work that is necessary to truly and deeply understand a concept – or another human being or group of human beings.

We say plethora, demitasse, ozone and love.
We think we know what each sound means.
There are times when something so joyous
or so horrible happens our only response
is an intake of breath, and then
we’re back at the truth of it,
that ball of life expanding
and exploding on impact, our heads,
our chests, filled with that first
unspeakable light.

                                – Dorianne Laux

“We think we know what each sound means,” the poet tells us, and each of us understands, or could understand, that the four characters ordered in this way: love, are a far cry from the experience they intend to depict. Taste these characters together: demitasse; mmm, so good. Really? The next time you utter or write the words bottom line, and you’re not referring to the actual bottom line on a financial statement, ask yourself what it is you really mean and find words for what you really mean in the context within which you mean it.

Obviously (I hope) it can be convenient, efficient and harmless (although not necessarily best) to use labels and generalizations in our day-to-day communication, especially with people we know and in contexts in which conflict and disagreement are absent. We know what our neighbor means when she sees us on that first sunny, blue-skied, 65-degree day after a long winter, and says “Beautiful day!” Or do we? Perhaps she just got engaged, won the lottery, her cancer is in remission, or she’s on her way to the airport for a much anticipated vacation. And regardless of what it is that motivates her to utter these words, there’s no harm and perhaps a lot of good in our responding something like “Yes, it is – enjoy!” – even if we have no idea why she says this, and in fact, it’s a beautiful day for us simply because she says this.

When any one of us utters words like liberal or conservative in an otherwise friendly conversation, absent any further elucidation the words have only limited meaning outside the context of where the speaker and the listener self-identify on the political spectrum (and on how accurate their self-identities are). If Bernie Sanders criticizes someone or something as having a liberal bias, it may arouse interest; if Mitch McConnell says it, not so much. If McConnell criticizes a conservative bias, that’s unusual; for Sanders, not so much. Where I stand on the political spectrum and on specific issues controls how I use those two labels. The same is true with any label or generalization I use outside the realm of politics. If I am ignorant of where I stand, what my view is, and what informs my view (the focus of essays two and three), not only will my labels and generalizations usually do more harm than good, they will do so from a place of self-ignorance.

Note that level of formal education, number of degrees and alleged prestige of schools attended neither preclude nor exclusively lead to the ignorant use of labels and generalizations. A terminal degree can narrow and limit one’s view even as it deepens knowledge and insight in its field of focus; having no degree may limit academic knowledge and invite and allow curiosity beyond what academia finds important. Ignorance of self and self-knowing are equal opportunity statuses.

In essay six, we’ll explore the difference between opinion and fact. In number seven, we’ll take a look at how we might limit or replace our labels and generalizations with learning how to provide specific, factual and preferably personal examples to support our opinions.


Rachel Naomi Remen. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. New York: Riverhead, 1996, p. 66.

Dorianne Laux. From “Each Sound.” What We Carry. Rochester, NY: BOA, 1994.

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