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A label doesn’t just tell us what other things are: they way we use it can tell us things about ourselves too – although that tends to be in the small-print. Recently, I ‘shared’ a jokingly scathing opinion about hipsters online. (If you are thinking about 50s jazz musician slang or trousers with a lower than average waistband at this point, click here for clarification.) Thankfully, I had serendipity on my side and managed to restrict my outburst to a closed Facebook group. After what might be called ‘debate’, the collective conclusion was that simplistic summaries are rarely accurate and, indeed, are more likely to mislead than guide or describe. (A secondary conclusion was that the initial impression we create in others might not always be the most conducive to achieving their buy-in to whatever we think of as being our ‘proposition’.)

There is little, however, that someone somewhere won’t take seriously enough to measure, monitor and develop a thesis about. Public Policy Polling, a US organisation that proudly asserts on its website that the Wall Street Journal ranked it “as one of the top swing state pollsters in the country during the last Presidential election”, considered the continuing proliferation of hirsute organic finger-painting beekeepers (ok, I’m paraphrasing) on the rooftops of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, as sufficiently worthy of its attention that it published this (earning themselves Guardian coverage in the process).

I caught myself wondering why they didn’t ask people questions about their sense of proportion. (I also caught myself remembering how much I laughed at a recent News Quiz episode where ‘middle-class’ was defined in terms of being overheard in Waitrose asking of your Significant Other the deathless question “Darling, do we need parmesan for both houses”. Funny, but hardly the foundation of a working understanding of the dynamics of class structure in early 21st century Britain. But hey, shorthand is quicker, right?)

“So what?,” you’re possibly thinking. And I sympathise. So much fuss about facial hair, fixed wheel bicycles and sleeve tattoos. Can’t we just slap a label on it – ‘hipster’ will do – and move on. Well yes, if we find hipster affectations irritating, and if we’re going to use words like ‘affectations’, chances are that we already do. But that’s being as shallow as the object of our witty derision, and it’s not actually helping anyone understand anything – or, more pertinently, anyone.

A shorthand label is sometimes useful (and we’ll look at that word ‘shorthand’ again in a moment), although your reactions to this article in Psychology Today or to the academic paper referenced in it may not necessarily support that argument. Even HR Magazine, in a Nov 2013 article describing its team’s experience of MBTI testing, pointed out a valid objection to processes, tools or systems that :

“MBTI does have its drawbacks. Placing people into 16 character types is reductive.”

Maybe it pays to bear in mind the reason we invented shorthand in the word’s original sense: it wasn’t to converse in shorthand, but to record more quickly for subsequent transcription into longhand. Shorthand was a means to capture the full content before modern conveniences like audio recording came along. In this sense, the phrase ‘shorthand for {something}’ is misleading: shorthand for something is the same as longhand – the content isn’t reduced, just written differently.

The view of MBTI as categorisation is, we’d argue, a similar misunderstanding: respondents should ideally see ‘type’ as a matter of being ‘best fit’ rather than ‘there are 16: you may pick only 1’. But then the point isn’t to ascribe a label: it’s to encourage the individual to be aware of their behavioural preferences – and of the individuality of other people’s preferences and the possible benefits of taking them into account. Otherwise being aware that one of your colleagues is defined as (say) an ESTJ achieves little more than knowing they’re a Capricorn.

A recent Barclays’ report, Talking About My Generation, which focused on reward packages, employee benefits and generational differences. It is, of course, important that organisations recognise that a reward and recognition or employee benefits system designed in one era should be reviewed to see whether it remains effective: there may be a feelgood factor in perceiving our own generosity, but ‘benefit’ is in the value-system of the recipient, not the giver.

That there are differences between generations should not be surprising, although as far as these relate to the value they place on different potential benefit offerings, these may be as much to do with the age of individuals rather than the generation they belong to. To quote from an HR Director magazine article, do people of my age

“[…] tend to have complicated family structures and are typically time-poor and in need of better work-life balance”

because they were born between 1961 and 1980, or because we are between 33 and 52 and that’s the currently typical pattern of what we’d prefer not to think of as middle-age? Between those ages, many people are raising children, moving to larger homes to accommodate them, worrying about college fees and wrestling with the complexities of demanding family lives as well as critical career years.

But how useful is that ‘shorthand’? Is everyone in that age bracket facing the same personal and financial issues? ‘Many people’ is not a synonym for ‘everyone’, and the differences that get covered over by conflating the two can be as big as the perceived differences between the broadbrush descriptions of Gen X and Gen Y.

While the Barclays report isn’t about diversity training per se, the journalism it has generated couldn’t exist without the concept of diversity. As someone of the Gen X age bracket with no children, whose work-life balance concerns are entirely of my own making, and who is familiar with most digital media and channels but prefers face-to-face discussion for important financial considerations, I ‘fit’ different aspects of four of the five generations that are categorised. ‘Five sizes fit all’ is a step onward from ‘one size fits all’, but only in as far as it gives me a choice of poor fits. And how far can you apply different forms of categorisation to label people till you reach the point where they belong in the category called ‘needs wider lapels as we can’t fit all the labels on’?

At which point, I read Peter Bregman’s HBR blog article, Diversity Training Doesn’t Work, which drew on a research study into diversity education practices that had proven effective – and those that hadn’t (sometimes categories are useful). Amongst the points he made are the following:

“When people divide into categories to illustrate the idea of diversity, it reinforces the idea of the categories.

Which, if you think about it, is the essential problem of prejudice in the first place. People aren’t prejudiced against real people; they’re prejudiced against categories. “Sure, John is gay,” they’ll say, “but he’s not like other gays.” Their problem isn’t with John, but with gay people in general.

Categories are dehumanizing. They simplify the complexity of a human being. So focusing people on the categories increases their prejudice.

The solution? Instead of seeing people as categories, we need to see people as people. Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It’s too conceptual, and it doesn’t work.

Instead, train them to do their work with a diverse set of individuals. Not categories of people. People.”

Just one opinion, of course, but an interesting one. If you look at his own website, do you take his arguments more or less seriously when you read that he is “the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm”? And what might your answer suggest about you?