That’s what we people do. It is easier to interact with each other this way. If you don’t know somebody well, you don’t have to waste your precious time and your brain energy to get into details. You just put this person in a box - one of many categories you store in your head to sort people out - and get the whole list of instructions on what to expect from such people and how to deal with them. Instructions are attached to the box - neat and simple.
Some of these boxes were created through your previous experiences. Others emerged because you learned things from secondary sources: friends, books, television. We all have certain stereotypes about people: cops are like this, Italians are like that; all old people are *blank*, men usually do *blank*; he is religious, so he is so-and-so, she is a politician so that it what I should expect from her. Somebody reminds you of a school friend, or of a school bully, or of your mother, and – bam! – the label is ready. If you don’t know somebody well, and you put them in a box, chances are you will never know them well enough to be able to say who they really are.
Our tendency to put each other in boxes has been the root of many conflicts. Sexism, racism and homophobia, and any kind of prejudice, exist because we are too lazy to learn more about people around us. Oftentimes we have certain expectations about somebody because we are sure we know the category of people this person belongs too. But any so called “social group” exists only in our head. It consists of people that have one randomly prioritized characteristic in common; but they also have a myriad of traits that make them different, traits we simply ignore.
I know that people have labels for me: I am a woman, a Russian, a scholar, a PhD student, a person who listens, somebody who knows several languages, somebody who has recently started a blog, a person who left their country (a traitor), an ally, a feminist, an anti-gender-ist (I like this one), weak, strong, stupid, smart – and god knows what else. Labels are bad not so much because they are wrong (although many of them are!) but because they never let you see the person as a whole. And also because after a while people think they have put on somebody a decent enough amount of labels to be able to say who this person is. Then they stop, being sure that this somebody is not a mystery anymore.
We think that labels and boxes make people transparent. But they just obscure things. So, please, don’t put me in a box, however pretty and neat it is.
Never finish the journey of discovering people. Because this journey is amazing.