Nouns or verbs? Labels and categories are easier to talk about than social dynamics and behavioral patterns, but what are the implications of relying on them too much to explain people’s bahavior?

Recently, I had a skeptical reaction to a TED talk in which Adam Grant seemed to be encouraging us to categorize each other into three categories of people: givers, takers and matchers. It was my sense that people’s behavior is probably too socially-embedded and fluid to be captured through this sort of categorization. I also wondered how starting with the assumption that people can be categorized might shape our own behavior and perceptions in ways that aren’t very useful.

Later, when I reviewed an essay I wrote a few years ago on a similar topic, I realized that I had also divided people into three categories that were pretty similar to those used by Grant. I tried to frame the categories in terms of observable behavioral patterns, but the fact that I had also used people categories and labels as part of my argument gave me pause. It made me wonder if it even possible (or at any rate practical) to try to analyze individual and group behavior in ways that don’t rely on the shortcut of dividing people into categories?

I guess on some level, I’m curious about how to differentiate behavior (verbs) – or perhaps reconcile behavior (verbs) with – from identity (nouns/labels).

I tend to agree with Walt Whitman’s observation that we each contain multitudes. Each of us contains a broad range of potentialities which we can experience more fully if we let go of the need to define ourselves as being one specific, consistent thing across all of the times and places that form the context of our lives.

This question has interesting implications when you expand the lens to consider that the way we relate to each other has a shaping effect on what we each do and become. If each of us contains multitudes AND we are socially-embedded, then there is a virtually limitless range of permutations of behavior that each of us might exhibit at any given time at least partially driven by an equally infinite number of ways we both consciously and unconsciously shape each other’s behavior.

Given our apparent preference for simple stories, are we even capable of thinking in terms of verbs (behavior) rather than nouns (identities/labels)? What would it take to break us out of this preference and what utility might be gained from the breaking?

There are clearly limitations to these stories, but they are compelling nonetheless. Claiming that you don’t see color does not liberate you from the unconscious tendency to associate a set of traits with all of the members of a group who seem to share a color. On the other hand, excessive reliance on the category of color to guess what we’ll find in any given individual is also not a particularly useful strategy. We are clearly neither all the same in every way nor unique snowflakes. Categories help us find a middle ground, but by relying on categories we may lose access to both the granularity of that which is unique about each of us AND the patterned nature of the dynamics and factors that shape all of us.

While we probably can’t entirely escape from our tendency to group people into categories, perhaps we also need to remember to modulate our lenses back and forth so that we also notice each other as unique individuals on the one extreme and also as members of one large similar category (e.g. humans) on the other. Perhaps by consciously moving back and forth among various permutations of these three levels, we can develop a more accurate and useful understanding of the real people we encounter in our real workplaces and lives.

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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