(This guest post by A.N. Ordinary-Human was transcribed by Neil Hughes.)
Hello, fellow human. I’d like to ask you a question: What do you do?
No, I don’t mean “what are your hobbies?” Or even your interests or passions. I want to know how to label you.
This isn’t a sinister thing, you understand. This desire to label you by asking you a simple question is just the way my brain works. Like all humans, I store concepts in my head. These concepts are broad, but they help me to understand the world with minimal mental effort.
For example, my mental model tells me that the label ACCOUNTANT is likely to indicate that you are useful if I have financial questions. It also stores some extra information on ACCOUNTANTS. They are probably highly educated. As a stereotype, they are supposed to be boring. However, my life experience tells me that in reality they tend to be hilarious and fun, so I am surprised if meet a boring ACCOUNTANT these days.
Every time I meet someone, I have limited time to decide what to make of them. This is true for all of us. We rush to an initial judgement, so we can efficiently decide how to act.
Our brains require the answers to so many questions about this new person: Are we going to be friends? Do we have much in common? Might we be useful to one another?
None of us can possibly answer these questions accurately in a reasonable amount of time. Certainly not in every social situation. And so my feeble human brain has a shortcut: “What do you do?” This helps me to choose the most suitable label for you from my mental box of labels.
It’s likely that you’re roughly similar to other people my brain has labeled in the same way. This means I can, to a rough approximation, get a feel for you from just “what you do?” And this lets me guess at the answers to those more pressing questions about what our relationship might be.
A flaw in the system
In many situations, this system works. It’s unremarkable. But sometimes we humans forget that this is only a system our brains invented. We can be tempted to think that these mental labels are more than just labels. That these labels actually describe the people we stick them to.
This is why some humans are surprised to learn that this legal adviser plays in a heavy metal band. Or that that professional gymnast has a degree in Advanced Quantum Shenanigans. They believe their labels actually describe reality, and aren’t just imaginary labels in their heads!
The fear of being labeled
There’s a second layer of complication. Some other humans realize that others are judging them based on what they do. They are afraid of being labeled. And so they resist the application of labels.
But there’s no need to fear labels. They are not limiting in any real sense. They’re just convenient mental shortcuts that our brains like to use.
It’s interesting to think a little more about that feeling of surprise we get when someone confounds our labels. If we were rational, we would understand that feeling of surprise is a moment of growth: “I’m not surprised at you for existing. I’m surprised at me for believing my own limiting label system!”
That surprise is just what it feels like when my brain expands its categories. Of course an elite gymnast can be an elite physicist. How silly of me to forget and to believe my own imaginary label system!
A different perspective
If you don’t like to be asked what you do, perhaps this perspective may help you think of it differently. Next time somebody asks you, “what do you do?”, there’s no need to shrink back with fear at being pasted with a label that only exists in someone else’s mind.
Instead, this is a chance to get excited; you’re about to expand the box in their mind that has “your label” on it.