Who am I?

I’m not who you think. I’m not sure anyone knows me well enough to be able to answer the question accurately and completely. Not even me.

Besides, most of the labels we like to use to define one another probably really apply. Liberal? Conservative? What do either of those mean, really? I believe in many liberal causes, but my preferred methods of implementation may differ from those of the “typical liberal”, if such a creature exists. I also believe in many conservative causes, but not to the degree others may.

Christian? That depends on who you talk to. Business Analyst? Sure, that’s my title, and yet my actual job experience would never get me far with the IIBA. Father? Certainly true in a very literal sense and, I would hope, a broader sense as well. But still, what does that mean? Husband? Again, far too broad a spectrum for that to be overly meaningful.

Labels are more often than not useless for really defining a person. And yet we use them all the time and think we know something about someone. But the funny thing is, by the time we get to know a person well enough to really be able to apply labels with any hope of accuracy, those labels become largely meaningless and unnecessary. I don’t have to catalogĀ  my friends with labels, though I might consider using them to describe them to someone else. But I know that to call friend X a Catholic doesn’t really do X justice. To call friend Y a plumber really doesn’t tell you all that much about her.

Yet it’s almost impossible to not use labels. We put them on ourselves. The clothes we wear, the places we go, the music we listen to, the car we drive, the books we read–everything anyone can see can become a label. It’s inescapable. It’s instinct. It’s survival. If I’m on a desolate street at night and I see someone approaching me you can bet I’ll be labeling. Their clothes: business suit vs. torn jeans and a hoodie. Their posture: slouching vs. erect. Their grooming: clean cut vs. scruffy. What they carry: newspaper vs. baseball bat. I don’t even have to look at skin color to make a dozen judgments about someone in a matter of seconds and adjust my response accordingly.

Those same labels might evoke an entirely different response in different circumstances, say my front yard during broad daylight, or at the state fair. The very signals that might have me double-checking for my can of mace on a deserted street at midnight I might not even register at the mall on a Saturday afternoon.

This is why, as a general rule, I try to evoke positive labels in my dress and demeanor. People may still see my twill slacks, button-down shirt, and glasses and assign a negative label. I can neither help nor predict that. But for better or for worse, my chances of a positive label are higher than if I were to wear shorts, a ratty t-shirt, and flip-flops.

And yet people still wouldn’t know that much about me even from my attire. They don’t need to in most cases. Most of the time they only need to identify me as a potential threat or not.

Still, it’s human nature to apply more labels than necessary and refuse to explore beyond them. It’s unfortunate, and I’m as guilty as the next man. It’s a defense mechanism–we don’t have time to get to know everyone–but it’s not really a defense. We need to be careful of the labels we assign.

Who am I? Check every single fact from A to Z and you’ll still know nothing about me.

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