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Boxes and Labels

Avoiding the assumptions

What are you? Who are you? What do you do?
What type of person are you?
Can you define yourself in a few words and guarantee that those few words will remain an accurate description of who you are for many years? Or, like me, will you need several words and the option to change your mind at any moment?
I’m sure there are plenty of life-changing moments within all of our existences where we redefine ourselves because of a change of direction or some sort of realisation. Or we discard a label because we find it too limiting and it groups us with other people that we feel we have nothing else in common with.

I recently read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and came to the conclusion that we should go no further than ‘human’ or ‘person’ in terms of categorisation. Anything after that – and in the case of her story ‘male’ or ‘female’ – can be subject to argument.

This morning I listened to Hermione Lee talk about the writer, Edith Wharton. Edith wrote about feminist issues but strongly refuted any suggestion that she was in fact A Feminist. Hermione Lee said, ‘Many women write about feminism but don’t call themselves feminists.’
That’s because we don’t like labels and all the connections and assumptions that go with them, I thought. Once you admit to being an environmentalist, for instance you get placed into a box with a label ‘profit of doom’ or ‘hippie’ and the lid firmly closed on you. Isn’t it more sensible to avoid labels and leave everything open to conversation or we may end up inadvertently fitting someone else’s view of what our particular label means?

Are you clever or stupid? Do you see other people as clever or stupid? Do you judge people by whether they have a degree or not? Is it that simple?
I have strong socialist opinions but I am not a Labour Party supporter.
I am a writer but I don’t have a cat sitting on my lap. (I don’t particularly like cats. But that doesn’t make me an animal-hater either!)
I am a mother but that doesn’t mean I want to sit around with other mothers talking about my children.
I keep getting sent forms from the OU, asking me to fill in details about my current situation since finishing this, that and the other course. I can’t do it. I don’t fit the boxes.

Then within the same radio programme as the Hermione Lee interview, an American writer was interviewed talking about her book about optimism. (Look her up if you can be bothered. I’m not sure I can!) She stated that we all have optimism ‘hard-wired’ into us – that it is a human trait. Now any sort of blanket statement like that is like a red rag to a bull to me. How dare she make sweeping assertions like that?!
She then muddled her argument by saying that only 80% of people are in fact optimistic the other 20% are clinically depressed. Gosh. Which box do I fit in? Hmmm…
Oh no… but then she said that British people are pessimistic, because we are really optimistic but we are culturally pessimistic. We put on our pessimism.

Scratches head

Well I had a good long think about this. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not depressed either. I am British. But I am not putting it on. I am plagued by pessimistic thoughts and I fight them regularly. But I love life and never want it to end. So I think I must have fallen out of my box and got lots of different labels stuck to me on the way down. So maybe my parents lied and I am not British then. Or maybe I’m not human.

I did a light-hearted survey on Twitter this morning, by the way, and many – UK-based – people came forward to say they were in fact optimistic.

It must be time to make up a few more box labels because not everyone is fitting neatly into the ones we have so far.

Or shall we just say we are who we are and that’s that. (And even that is subject to the day of the week, hormones, the moon, what job we are doing, who we are hanging out with, what we are eating, and life experiences. Let’s face it – sometimes we just don’t feel ourselves)

Some descriptions are useful for helping us cope or stay away from those who might make us unhappy. I believe being diagnosed with Asperger’s is very useful, for instance, but it’s only one part of who a person is.
I’d probably stay away from someone who defined themselves as a child-hating, capitalist, diamond-obsessive because I’m a family-loving, socialist, sandal-wearer.
But that’s just me.

Or is it?

These ‘not necessarily what it says on the box’ thoughts that prompted me to take the above photo made me think about my Dad.
I have a box in the shed that he wrote on:

What’s in there is definitely not what’s on the label, as he wrote that for a joke. Mum won’t throw anything away (well, not much) because almost everything should be re-used or recycled. Her intentions are good but she never actually deals with all the boxes and piles. She would call herself green and an environmentalist, a recycler… but is she if she doesn’t actually get around to recycling…
I guess that makes her a hoarder.

Or does it?

I’m not wearing sandals today, by the way.
Today I am A Fluffy Boot Wearer.

Grabs labels and indelible pen

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. When I did my MBA, I used to do the various psychometric tests e.g Myers Briggs and always fell straight in the middle of every model. I had no strong preference for anything. On the very last day, we had a workshop based on Shakespeare’s Henry V run by Richard Olivier (son of…). They had a model too and I was finally able to fit into a box. I was, wait for it, a ‘Warrior Queen’! I am enthusiastic, creative, imaginative, demonstrative and persuasive. Much as I enjoyed the experience, it has made absolutely no difference to my life since whatsoever.
    Some people love boxes and labelling. It helps authors sell their self help books and it helps some people who aren’t quite able to relate to others properly as individuals e.g. making assumptions that extroverts are better at X,Y,Z than introverts is so much easier than taking time to get to know someone and find out their attitudes and preferences.
    Here’s to sitting in the middle.


    • I love that comment, Pete. And of course you are a warrior queen. It’s obvious now


  2. This post sums up how I feel. I used to use labels to make it clear who I was: writer, reader, M.E. sufferer etc, but stopped doing that last year as I realised that I am not a bunch of labels – they don’t create me. I would say that it would be very hard to put me in many boxes. As for the optimistic/pessimistic/depressive thing that British people apparently are (I am British – one of the few labels I accept – currently at least), I can safely say I am all of them, most of the time. Though of course there are days when I am more one than the others. So yeah, I don’t like boxes or labels. But trying to work out who I am without them is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do (so far).


    • Thanks for commenting, Tamara. It’s always good to feel I’ve connected with people and not just ranting to myself! I wonder if when we stop trying to figure out what or who we are is when we find ourselves… (or perhaps I’m getting soppy 😉 )


  3. OpinionsToGo #

    I’m always amazed at peoples profiles on twitter. They seem very happy to label themselves.

    I sometimes have to laugh since, I don’t find them to be anything like their profile.

    I, on the other hand, haven’t “labeled” myself as anything. I know that people perceive me, the

    way,they perceive me and, that is just fine with me.

    Loved your blog…very thought provoking.


    • Thanks, Jo. I’ve always been scared of labelling myself ‘chocoholic’ for instance in case I find out I’m allergic to chocolate. I’m going to have to stop calling myself ‘student’ when I finish my studies with the OU, which is silly because I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning


  4. can't decide but Rachel can see the email she'll know me :) #

    This is the second post on labelling that I’ve read recently! Maybe January is a month for thinking about oneself. My comment on that one was that I keep my lives (labels) separate online as I prefer the old-fashioned conversational way of finding out about people. So I may have labels for myself in my head (which change regularly!) but I try not to put all my labels in one place online. (so education over there; politics over there; etc) is that a bad thing? That I don’t show all of me in one go? Not sure. Now, which twitter/facebook/email account shall I use to post this…


    • Fabulous comment from you in this particular guise! And what an excellent way to do it! You are funny – well this version of you is! 😀


      • me again #

        🙂 🙂 🙂 cheers!



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