How labeling people creates a "box" that doesn't actually exist
Articles,  Method,  Performance

How labeling people creates a “box” that doesn’t actually exist

A pet peeve of mine is that awful cliché “think outside the box”, because we like assigning labels to almost everything these days.


A box implies there are limits – boundaries.

When it comes to our thinking or attitudes, nothing could be more damaging to the self than confining our experiences and worldviews to specific labels.

Don’t be fooled: There is no box!

Labels expose judgment

Humans like to classify things because it feels easier to process life this way.

Believe me, our brains can cope without labels!

We remember everything we see, hear and feel; recalling it is the problem. And in order to do that, when we think of our memory as a huge filing cabinet, we can consider what drawer that memory is in, then what file. Finally, we can sift through the folders and find the memory we’re looking for.

How efficient!

Except, we label things incorrectly.

Usually we box things into what we like and don’t like. We add opinion and judgment to a situation in order to remember it. Most of the time, we use negative responses to create labels under the mistaken belief that doing so helps us avoid unwanted situations in the future.

Consider this: for decades, behavior management has suggested that you praise the behaviors you want more than criticize the behaviors you don’t want. Imagine if we applied that approach to our thoughts! We certainly would be “boxing” ourselves and others around us in a lot less.

Labels disregard context

Just because someone has more experience in one specific field than another does not mean that person should be labeled that way.

In fact, they might be an expert at something else altogether.

I had a reputation for being one of the clearest, funniest, and most welcoming parking attendants in my church parking lot. On Sunday mornings, as crowds of cars lined the driveway, I was just one of the team of folks in bright orange t-shirts directing traffic on which way to turn. People loved me for it! My waving ‘technique’ made them smile.  How labeling people creates a "box" (that doesn't actually exist)

The day after I hosted the Pinellas Festival of Community Bands one year, at which I also conducted the Dunedin Concert Band, one couple at church got out of their car and came bounding over to me in the middle of all the traffic. “I was right!” exclaimed the husband. “I told my wife ‘That’s the Parking Guy!’ You were the guy at that music festival, right?”

I guess conducting and waving traffic have their similarities, but really… the Parking Guy?

Labels eliminate individual uniqueness

One of the most damaging aspects of boxing people into convenient labels is that they then begin to believe it themselves.

This is a big problem, particularly in the conducting world.

It seems that conductors are usually encouraged to choose what type of conductor they want to be – choral, orchestral, theater, band, brass, opera, ballet, etc. Very rarely do these ‘specialists’ venture outside their comfort zone and learn so much more that they could bring to performing. (I actually pride myself on such versatility!)

I’ve watched the career of Barry Wordsworth develop since his second post as conductor of the Royal Ballet Covent Garden. His other post was as principal conductor of the live radio and recording ensemble, the BBC Concert Orchestra. That group did mainly ‘light classics’, which included a lot of ballet. Wordsworth became known as a ballet expert. Indeed, he left the Royal Ballet in 1995, but with that label already stuck and his career in other genres not going anywhere, he took a position with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2005.

He has so much more to offer, but will never really become ‘mainstream’ because of the box the industry put him in.

Here’s a TRIPLE WIN lesson:

(Nurture your audience) 

First, avoid the “them and us” approach. Performers and audiences alike participate in live music. Without someone listening to you, you’re not performing.

Second, each person in that audience is there for their own reason, not your reason. Treat them all like a group of individuals rather than one collective body.

Third, remove traditional barriers such as seating arrangements, if you can. I love putting audiences behind and to the sides of my ensembles whenever possible. Another barrier that can be smashed is preventing performers from talking to the audience before and after concerts. Let them! Help build connections and relationships! These are your future volunteers, funders, and word-of-mouth marketers.

Finally, just get rid of the idea of “thinking outside the box.”

After all, who put the box there in the first place?

Yes – you did.

Therefore, you can remove it, too.