why use a label?

“Listen to my tone, not my words.”

When I taught ESL (English as a Second Language), I can’t tell you how many times I said this phrase.  I realized, soon after arriving and teaching myself how to do this whole “teacher” thing, that the first thing I had to teach wasn’t grammar or vocabulary.  Many had quite a good knowledge of English, in fact.  No, I had to teach them something nobody else had taught them.  That language isn’t about using the right words or the correct grammar.  It’s about how well you communicate what you wish to mean to the person who hears it.

Labels are simply a form of language. The labels don’t matter. The words don’t matter. Not really.  They serve a base, useful purpose.  What matters is the beliefs, the person behind the label.  

People misuse labels and mislabel themselves- on purpose or accidentally- all the time. If I had a dime for every ‘straight’ girl I hooked up with that was genuinely into me and not faking it for a boyfriend, I’d have, well, I’d have a few dimes.  And I’d certainly rather date someone that I see is ‘polyminded,’ as I put it, than someone who is simply poly identified.

Language is about communication– and labels are language.

Sometimes she– the woman who found me interesting and whom I liked back– deliberately avoided the label “bisexual,” because of the creeps who would message her with unwanted solicitations.  (I’ve done that myself.)

Sometimes she simply didn’t know herself that well and had been raised to believe she was straight, while never questioning it or thinking about it for herself.

Sometimes she had misconceptions about the label (people have weird assumptions about every label).

Labels aren’t something you just pick up and put on like a piece of clothing- at least I don’t believe they should be.  If you try to force a label on yourself, I’ve found it doesn’t work very wel. Calling yourself “polyamorous” or “monogamous” or “kinky” doesn’t make you that way.  Why would it?  You still act the way you want to act, still are the person you were before the discovery of said label.  And, to be quite frank, it doesn’t much matter, because

Labels, truthfully, often aren’t about you.

I’ve seen countless folk asking about what a label means or which label they ‘should’ use. But that’s not asking the right question.  Or at least not a very useful one.  Because it’s not about them. It’s about their audience.

If I tell a person at a munch that I am polyamorous, at best, it might get us on the right path.  But they’ll still need to talk to me, and I with them, about what that means to me. Because not all polyamorous people are seeking the same ideals.  Sure, it’ll more or less communicate the idea that I am “romantic” with multiple people, or that I desire/am open to that outcome.  But there’s still so much room for misinterpretation if we don’t talk.

If I tell a stranger I am my partner’s kids’ friend, they won’t get it. If I call them my stepkids, it helps illustrate our actual relationship. But it won’t communicate fully what I want to express. So I use different words, different labels, dependent on the circumstances. That way, as closely as possible, my label communicates the desired meaning to the person in question.

I sometimes get mad because people don’t use dictionary definitions (and it’s something that I do sometimes struggle with), but at the end of the day, words mean different things to different people.  No dictionary definition will overrule one’s personal interpretation.

Finding the “right” label for you is a matter of trial and error.

Labels grow with you, adapt, change. It has to fit you naturally, like an aura. I also don’t expect anyone to be married to their labels. Just because you call yourself something today, doesn’t mean you aren’t wholly free to change at a moment’s notice.

Here’s some of the questions I’ve used to settle on the one that fits me best:

1) “Am I often uttering the phrase ‘well, but what I MEAN is…’ whenever the label comes up? I once saw a guy who labeled himself as “monogamous” with Sarah and “monogamous” with Jane. Now, in his mind, I guess that counts as monogamy. However, there are certain associations people make with monogamy. If you stray, it’s on YOU to make that clear. Not on THEM to read your minds. If you find yourself having to explain your label over and over…maybe it’s time for a new label. If you call yourself “asexual,” but really mean “I do want sex, just only with certain people,” you might find that “demisexual” is a better suited label. At least don’t be surprised when people who do desire sex don’t really push to have a relationship with you.

2) “Do I feel comfortable with the label?” Trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable with a certain label, it probably isn’t the right one for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. I didn’t feel wholly comfortable identifying as kinky for a while, but I couldn’t think of one better. Now I’ve grown into it. Even if I’m not Miss Super Kinky, I am kinky enough. Plus, it helps clear up the matter of what kind of relationship I want. If someone wants a a traditional, vanilla life, my calling myself ‘kinky’ helps them understand we’re not a great match. Or, if we do decide to date each other, at least I’ve made it clear that I may want some nontraditional fun in our intimate life.

3) “What does this label generally mean?” Some labels are far more defined than others. If you choose a label that already has a lot of solid assumptions, perhaps be careful using it in ways that are not commonly applied. If you aren’t sure what something means, ask around. Especially in communities that are based around that particular label (that doesn’t mean they are the ultimate experts, but it’ll give you a good idea of what MANY mean by using that word).

Anyway, hope that helps with the best use of a label, if you are keen to use ’em!  Also remember that it’s not about right or wrong, but about achieving your goals.  If the label “works” for  you, than it’s the right one.

Any other questions/thoughts/ideas on how to better use labels to further good communication?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top