Choose your words wisely: language, labels, and stereotypes


Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It usually came somewhere towards the end of a speech your mom gave you, after the 4th grade bully called you a name or made some superficial unsolicited observation of you, with intentions of being insulting. It helped mitigate the bruise to your self-esteem that the bully’s words caused and for a moment you believed it and got over it. I’d guess that at some point in time, this idea that others’ perceptions and descriptions of us are meaningless and not hurtful has been used to encourage and maintain positive self-esteem and self-concepts and internal appraisals of ourselves. It’s a good strategy–telling yourself that other peoples words don’t hurt, but is it true? Does it really work?

I think this strategy can be useful and does help to bolster self-esteem and remind us of attributes we want and should accept about ourselves. However, it’s a lot more difficult than we might think. Words, in fact, can be very harmful and can have deep impacts on individual development, relationships, and behavior. In our daily communications, the exchange of words happens so quickly and automatically. Once we’ve acquired and mastered the use of language, words come naturally, oftentimes without thinking. We think less about the specific words we’ll use to express something, and more about the general idea we’re trying to express. But I think it’s worth it to take more time in choosing words. There are meanings attached to words, just as there are words and meanings attached to certain identities. Furthermore, there are thoughts, feelings, and attitudes associated with these words, meanings, and identities. Oftentimes the language we use can lead to stereotyping and/or stigmatization due to the meanings associated with words, and the identities they’re attached to. The implicit association test shows how automatic thoughts and unconscious biases manifest out of our awareness.

Unfortunately, societal stereotypes exist, and our language is just one way we reinforce these problematic prejudices. For example, in the workplace a man and a woman might be displaying the exact same work behavior, but it is more likely that the woman would be described as “bossy” or “abrasive” while the man might be described as “confident” or a “natural leader.” Stereotypically, women are supposed to be more submissive, sweet, and frankly, “less than” men in the workplace, which explains why these labels would be used when they step outside of that role. There are several studies documenting this phenomenon, which clearly shows how stereotypes influence labeling. One might assume that this behavior, in this particular example would be perpetuated by men, that men might be engaging in the labeling and profiling of women in the workplace. Actually, this type of stereotyping happens across genders, just as racial stereotyping and profiling happens across ethnic identities. This is usually not something that is done intentionally or maliciously. Most of the time it is a subtle unconscious process. Stereotypes and prejudices are so engrained in our psyche’s that we’re often not aware when we are perpetuating them, even if/when we belong to the group being stereotyped. We unconsciously choose the language that corresponds with internalized perceptions or attitudes we have towards certain individuals and groups because that’s what we’ve learned to do.

There are serious consequences to this mechanical speech. Labels are internalized by both the ones labeling and the ones labeled. According to psychologists people live up or down to the expectations of stereotypes affecting their group. This happens across settings and situations: in academic settings, in the workplace, and in the general social environment. The mental health field is full of stigmatizing labels and words. Diagnoses are called “disorders,” and people who might be suffering or simply dealing with a life change become “mentally ill.” The stigma of being associated with mental illness sometimes deters people from seeking help they might need. It also polarizes the vast spectrum of psychological experiences into just two categories: healthy or ill. A hierarchical separation is made between those diagnosing and those diagnosed, between the labelers and the labeled. Stereotype threat is a concrete example of when this happens. Stereotype threat occurs when an individual belonging to a particular stereotyped group, actually performs or behaves in line with the stereotype, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stereotype threat and other types of self-fulfilling prophecies can significantly impact academic performance, and can limit the development of identities and aspirations.

One way to combat boxing people in with labels and stereotypes is to be more aware of your language. Awareness of the language you use as well as the language that automatically comes to mind when thinking of certain individuals or groups. Some of our thoughts and attitudes aren’t even our own. Think about where your attitudes and beliefs come from? Does an automatic thought about a particular ethnic group actually come from you or did you learn it from the media? What are your negative perceptions of different groups based on, and where did they come from? Your family? Fear? Ignorance? Religion? There are lots of reasons we make assumptions and rely on automatic thinking, as opposed to making more accurate assessments based on reality. Slowing down and taking time to actually get to know a person instead of assuming you know them based on previously internalized “information” is a good start to reducing your own participation in negative labeling and stereotyping. Another way to reduce labeling and stereotyping is by letting people identify themselves before you take it upon yourself to guess, “figure it out,” or put a label on it. Of course there are social, structural and institutional changes that need to be made to really fight these issues, but as individuals we can all take steps to helping ourselves and each other be seen as our authentic selves, without limitations.

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