I’m left-handed, an Angelino, a former Midwesterner, a designer, a sustainability and social media consultant, an ENTJ, an Aries, a humanist, a quinoa fan, a guitar player, a straight-laced rebel, a professional, a perpetual student, a Caucasian, a male, a human, a twenty-something, a blood type O positive, a mentor, a mentee, an outgoing recluse, a soon-to-be world traveler, a consumer, and a card carrying member of the local library.
These are just a double-handful of the titles that apply to me, and through them I am judged and categorized by others.
And in many ways, this is a good thing. Having mental containers to put one another in allows us to quickly and effortlessly figure out what’s dangerous in the world and who we might be attracted to. It’s an evolutionary shortcut that grew from ‘Looks like saber tooth tiger, must be dangerous’ to ‘Looks like hipster, must be my type’ and has allowed us to reduce the mating ritual, buying process, and danger-sensing stage of a new situation into a split-second’s worth of intellectual organization.
This is the same process that also leads us to be racists, sexists, and homophobes. The same preconceived notions we have about a certain group of people can help us avoid danger or hinder our social development by convincing us that we already know all there is to know about that person because of the sub-category they belong to.
But this isn’t an article about not being racist…hopefully most people who are reading this already have plenty of reasons not to discriminate based on skin color and such.
What I want to get across is that knowing your own titles can help you see yourself the way others first see you, which can be a significant advantage when you want to make a good first impression or present a certain side of yourself to someone or a group or someones.
Will a person who knows the results of their Meyers-Briggs personality test have a significant advantage over someone who doesn’t? Perhaps, if they use the information well. Knowing how you score on such a test compared to others can help you choose the right combination of people to work with for optimal effectiveness. It can also help you put words to your personality traits that are tough to define.
Consider this: before college, I found myself constantly being pushed into leadership positions. In school, the teacher would pick me to lead the group. Hanging out with my friends, I would be in charge of choosing what we did and making it happen. And you know what? I hated it. With a passion. When you’re in charge, you are divided from everyone else by the burden of responsibility, and I just wanted to hang with everyone else; carefree and ignorant of the machinations going on behind the scenes that made the world work as it did.
In college I had a defining moment in which I decided to just go with the whole ‘leader’ thing and see how it went. This decision was spurred by the results of the Meyers-Briggs test I had recently taken in one of my classes, which classified me as a strong ENTJ personality type (defined roughly as ‘The Executive’ or ‘The Born Leader’). And you know what? It made all the difference in the world. The feeling was a lot like when I removed caffeine and fast food from my diet at the tail-end of high school: I had no idea how bad I was feeling until I made the change and felt a whole lot better.
This is just one example, of course, and a lot of the benefit actually comes from knowing why people respond to you in a certain way and how you can change that response if you care to.
One title that I’ve worn, for example, is ‘atheist.’ This title is loaded with preconceived notions and historical baggage, and I’ve found that it can actually make people combative rather than friendly (a lot of people see a denial of the tenets of religion as an attack upon their beliefs). Knowing this, when I entered a discussion about atheism at a party (I know, I’m a party animal) with a molecular biologist, I was fascinated by his rejection of the term and his reason behind that rejection.
According to his argument, the term atheism is inherently negative because it tells someone what you are NOT, rather than saying what you ARE. This is an important distinction, because when you tell someone what you are, you establish points of reference that you can bond over and relate to. When you say you’re not something, however, you forcibly remove points of reference: in this case beliefs that might be very important aspects of their life. Not a great first impression.
This in mind, I decided to apply a different title to myself; one that is more inclusive but still very indicative of my values. I decided on ‘humanist,’ and since I started using that term instead of ‘atheist,’ I’ve had far fewer awkward silences and scoffs from religious and spiritual folk.
So keep in mind that your titles, however arbitrary and vague they might seem, are in practice actually very important. They are in many cases the first reference point that people have in deciding who you are as a person, and they can greatly color the implied intentions of even your most innocent action.
Update: May 9, 2016
I still remember that moment in college, when I decided to roll with the leadership thing. These days I find myself pulling back more often than not, however, as I’ve found that, unregulated, I tend to accidentally dominate conversations in a way that can make some people uncomfortable — holding back a bit and then slowing sorting out who wants to play what roll suits me a bit better, at least in terms of my own happiness.
Label theory is something I’ve spoken about a whole lot these last few years, particularly as it relates to brands and the impact of those brands on our self-perception. We tend to view ourselves in terms of other things: we’re the kind of person who wears this brand, we’re the kind of person who listens to this type of music, we’re the kind of person who shops at this grocery store, and so on. These touchpoints can be useful when used practically — to establish neighborhoods of concepts — but harmful when they become reductive; that is, as complete addresses. If we’re only the type of person who wears a certain logo, in our minds, or in the minds of the people around us, we’ve been reduced to badly drawn caricatures, not complete, wonderful, interesting, round, flawed human beings.
An item of interest: of all the things I’ve told readers about myself over the years, the left-handed thing elicits the most responses. Especially from lefties, but from right-handed folk, as well. Maybe because it’s not a topic that will likely raise any ire, like religion or politics? Not sure, but something I’ve noticed consistently since I started blogging.