On Labels and Judgments: 2016

Use caution when labeling and judging others. You don't always know a person's whole story(Earlier today, at my 5am spin class, I heard some sad news. I learned that a guy who had been a regular member of our early morning spin group had died over the weekend, apparently taking his own life. We weren’t close… we were friendly, enough to chat before and after class. We knew each other’s names, a few basics about each other’s lives. I don’t know exactly how old he was, but he was slightly older than me, probably in his early 50s, with five kids, a wife. He was incredibly fit, the kind of person you look at and think “wow.” He seemed happy, but how do you really know? You certainly can’t be sure from the kind of short interactions one has before and after a 5am spin class. But he seemed happy. He wasn’t physically sick in any way, I learned that for sure. But still, he took his own life over the weekend.

My colleagues and I talk all the time about the importance of knowing your audience, thinking about another person’s perspective, and being aware. We always talk about these things in a professional context. But these ideas, all of which have the common denominator of respect for others, also belong in a personal context. These are good habits to adopt, at work and at home.

Several years ago, I wrote the blog post below about trying to avoid the judgment of others. It was a powerful post that was popular with our readers. I re-posted it about two years ago, because something else popped up that made me think it was still worth sharing. And now I re-post it one more time. Because when you learn that someone you know – someone who seemed to have his act together and apparently have so much to live for – makes the decision to take his/her own life, it makes you realize that no matter how well you think you know someone, you never really do. We just don’t know.

Judge and label others with caution, please.

Rest in peace, Tom. ~Dean)

We communicate messages in so many ways, even when we don’t intend to. We communicate messages in obvious ways… with the words we speak and write, with our body language and our expressions and eye contact. But we also communicate messages in some less-than-obvious ways, and many times we may not even realize we are communicating anything. I like using stories to make my points, so let’s go there quickly on this Monday morning.

It’s October, which is my favorite month of the year. Why, you ask? Well, in my part of New England, the weather is cool and crisp, the sailing is great, the leaves are colorful, it’s baseball playoff time and the NFL season is well under way. (And if you think I listed those things in priority order, you don’t know me very well!) This October is also very special because my wife Emily and I are expecting an addition to our family any day now, so I’m orbiting close to home these days, thereby allowing me to enjoy football and the baseball playoffs in large quantities while we wait for the big day.

This past weekend I watched a lot of baseball with friends, and on Friday night I even caught a few innings of the Yankee game at a local watering hole. I ended up sitting next to some guy I don’t know, and I was wearing a tasteful fall ensemble of a navy blue Yankee t-shirt and my beloved Yankee hat. I’m enjoying the game, minding my own business, this guy strikes up conversation, and it’s obvious he’s not a Yankee fan. In fact, he’s a Red Sox fan, but we were still able to communicate a little. I know how to speak to Red Sox fans… I married one.

So we’re talking, and this guy is desperately trying to bait me into an argument. I suppose he was pretty bitter since the Sox season ended early in the first round of the playoffs, and the Yankees were still playing. But he’s pushing and prodding, looking for an argument, denigrating the Yankees because of this and that. And it’s pretty obvious pretty quickly that he’s labeled me in a certain way because I’m a Yankee fan. The guy doesn’t know me at all, but he made it clear quite quickly that he thought he had me all figured out just because I was a Yankee fan and was proud enough to show it publicly. In his mind I was arrogant and out to destroy baseball for the rest of the country, because I supported a team that spent more money than any other and therefore I wanted to destroy all the small-market teams that could not afford to compete with the Yankees. In his metaphorical world, I was “Darth Vader” to his ”Luke Skywalker.” I was “big city, Wal-Mart and heartless” to his “small town, corner store and caring.” I was “bad”, to his ”good.” We agreed to disagree, I finished my meal, and went home to watch the rest of the game.

But I’ve been thinking about this guy all weekend, and I realized that I communicated a message to him before I even opened my mouth. I was wearing two pieces of Yankee gear, which says a lot. One piece of Yankee gear, and I’m a fan, more than casual, but not over the top. Two pieces of Yankee gear and I’m more than a fan. I’m really into it. Which, in my bar buddy’s mind, validated all the things that he thinks about hard-core Yankee fans. He labeled me with all the negative labels he associates with the Yankees. Before I spoke to him, looked at him, or even realized he was there, I was communicating with him.

We live in a world of labels and judgments. We all do it, myself included. And it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to begin making assumptions about people based on the pre-concieved notions of the labels we create in our collective consciousness.

I’ll be honest… I’m not really sure what the uber-point here is today. Should I have dressed differently? No way. We wear what we want to wear. Should my buddy in the bar have judged me a little less? Sure, but this is the real world we live in, and I’m not holding my breath. I suppose the point is that we should always be careful about the messages we communicate based on the labels and judgments we know exist, because the stakes are often much higher than a disagreement on baseball. Suppose this blog wasn’t about baseball? Suppose I was writing about politics, religion or national identity? Suppose I was writing about professional or political risk when we ignore labels? What if instead of “Yankee vs. Red Sox” I was actually writing about “Republican vs. Democrat” or “Christian vs. Jew vs. Muslim” or “American vs. European vs. Asian?” I’m not recommending that we adjust our lives completely and make all our decisions based on the labels of others. I would never suggest anything close to that. But I am suggesting that we ignore the labels others might place on us at our own peril, and should always consider the full range of the messages we communicate.

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