中国大妈 - The impact of labels

paper labels and tags

In China it is very common for people to gather in parks, or under flyovers, indeed anywhere there is an open space. Some time ago, the term Zhong Guo Da Ma (中国大妈) was created.

It literally translates as Chinese Big Mother, and refers to late-middle-aged women who gather together in the daytime to play cards, dance in the parks for exercise. It has a resonance with the English term - “Ladies who lunch” - in the sense that it refers to women who get together because they have time on their hands. “Ladies who lunch” has a negative connotation in that it conveys the impression that these women should really be using their time to engage in something productive, but are either too selfish or unskilled to do so. 

And Zhong Guo Da Ma has taken on a similar negative connotation because sometimes these groups of ladies will gather and play cards and/or dance in places which make it inconvenient for others. For example they may play their music in the courtyards of housing complexes and annoy residents. Or they may dance on street corners, and therefore pedestrians have to negotiate a route around them. 

Not all of them behave like this, but in the same way that “Ladies who lunch” or “Hoodies” or “WAGS” or indeed any terminology that is invented to give society a vocabulary a way to converse about them, the label has become associated with negative behaviour. So any lady of a certain age who pushes to the front of a queue, who occupies more than one seat on a subway with her bags, will be commented upon as “Another Zhong Guo Da Ma” and there will then be discussion about “how terribly they behave, how selfish they all are.”

As human beings, we love labels. They enable us to talk about groups of people. We tend to do this as an unconscious means of self-preservation, and safety for others. In other words, we have a way of recognising certain people as “someone I should stay away from, and by extension, we have a way of warning our friends about these people. It is an act of protection, without the delaying effect of deliberation.

But this labelling activity quickly spirals into destructive and limiting stereotyping, and by distancing ourselves from people, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to bust those stereotypes and myths. Were we to get closer to the groups we are warned about we would see other aspects of individuals’ behaviour that would challenge what we have been told.

I worked on an inclusion programme with a group of Bank Managers who, during our discussions about “labelling”, revealed that in several of their high street branches, customers who arrived early were dubbed” Pasty People” because many of them carried a Gregg’s Bakery bag which contained their breakfast. They saw it as harmless amusement, but as our conversation progressed they realised that this label going unchallenged had led to an assumption among their staff that these people had little money and it wasn’t worth beginning any conversation with them about investment. Once they grasped the connections between labels, thinking and behaviours, they realised that their belief was limiting potential business their people could be generating by interacting differently with the “Pasty People”. 

And labelling is infectious. Despite being totally conscious of the fact that the labels created do not represent 100% of a group of people, a few days after having had Zhong Guo Da Ma described to me in China, whenever a middle-aged lady bumped into me on the subway, I could hear my internal voice tutting and muttering "Zhong Guo Da Ma". I had been hooked into using the label. Surely I was better than that? But the use of labels has a high degree of unconsciousness; it taps into our need for "protection without deliberation". It takes a strong conscious effort to stop using them.

The same phenomenon can occur when people work with personality-profiling tools. 

In the executive development work we do at Cranfield we often use pyschometric tools and personality models that help create self-insight, and insight into the behaviour of others. This can be particularly useful when used at group level, and people begin to see how they impact on one another. The tool/model, be it MBTI, Firo-B, Insights, Saville-Wave etc, provides a vocabulary that enables dialogue. Or in theory it does...

Once people have a vocabulary and a set of labels, if the tool/model has not been well debriefed, and if the conversation is not carefully facilitated, it can become used as a way to create distance instead of dialogue. “Ahh, so you are an INTJ! Now WE know why YOU cause problems for the rest of us...” etc. Self-reflection is tough; it is in direct conflict with our urge for self-preservation and safety: it is difficult to say “Hmm I wonder if that is how I cause problems for others?”

And if you do not have someone helping to facilitate conversations that are based upon purposeful dialogue, you may find that people in your organisation will, almost without realising they are doing it, invent new Zhong Guo Da Ma labels. 

Ask yourself these questions right now. “Does my organisation (or one of my departments) have any unique, unofficial labels for particular groups of my employees? For particular groups of my customers? What effect is that having on the way that people interact?

So my tip for anyone involved in executive development, and wants their leaders to better understand themselves and others, is three-fold:

1: Determine the purpose of wanting better personal insight, i.e. what impact do you want it to have, on the individual, on the group, on the organisation

2: Work with experts to determine the right tool/model, and how it will complement the overall development initiative

3: Ensure that whomever is delivering your development initiative is able to debrief the tool/model, and can facilitate conversations that create dialogue.

Not being mindful about the way that tools like this are used may inadvertently lead to your own organisation’s internal version of “Zhong Guo Da Ma”, or perpetuate existing, limiting beliefs about your “Pasty People”.

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