Unpacking Labels


labels of different shapes and colors

I love the way words help make sense of the complicated world around me. And so did Stephen Hawking:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.

Words unite us. But sometimes I can’t stand labels. Jock. Nerd. Liberal. Conservative. Tomboy. Girly-girl. Extrovert. Introvert. People are more complex than their stereotypes.

Like a hypochondriac discovering there’s a name for her symptoms, we latch onto labels for our own identities. I did it when I first started hearing the term introvert:

“Why yes, I do feel exhausted making small talk at parties! Finally, I can abandon society and retreat to my bedroom with the latest suspense novel. Leave me alone and go get your people fix somewhere else, you extrovert.”

But are introverts and extroverts absolute opposites? Must everyone be one or the other? And is our tendency toward one or the other a matter of nature or nurture? When your doctor tells you that you have high blood pressure like everyone else in your family, it’s safe to assume there’s a genetic component. But when you consistently eat nothing but Big Macs and Whoppers, you’re reinforcing the issue. The lines between how we’re born and how we’ve adapted to our environments become blurred.

Satisfied with a neat little label, I nurtured my own tendency toward introversion and solitude. Until improv.

If you’ve seen a ComedySportz® match but have never taken a class, you may think that the players are all gregarious, attention-seeking, outgoing people-persons. Fueled by the energy of the Loyal Fans, none of these brave souls could possibly be introverts. They must be the life of every party, with little time or desire to sit at home with a pair of knitting needles. But improvisers are diverse. Athletic, nerdy, straight, LGBT+, liberal, conservative, quiet, talkative, and everything in between.

Before taking improv classes, I was convinced that I didn’t know how to socialize. As my husband and I moved from one city to the next, I was content to secure a local library card and maybe attend a work-related happy hour every six months. Personal time was my security blanket. Improv changed that.

My Adult 101 course of study in listening, responding, and connecting helped me lower my defenses. I realized that my normal tendency to observe and listen was actually an asset in improv. I was able to drop some deeply-held but limiting beliefs about who I was and to see my classmates without labels and we formed a bond that extended beyond class. As our troupe acquired new members, I found myself reaching out to them rather than being suspicious or fearful.

Today, I’m surprised when someone labels me as quiet. There was a time when I accepted that label as an undeniable fact. I expected it and I allowed complete strangers to endow me as such. I added their remarks to the collection and I retreated further. But now, I have a secret. I’m not as shy as I appear. I can be outgoing when I want to. I just don’t care to waste energy proving myself to anyone insensitive enough to slap a label on me without taking the time to see who I am.

I’m unpacking boxes now and settling into yet another city. But this time, I’m thinking beyond the library. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lengthy list of books I want to read. Happily, I’m still mostly a homebody by nature and I treasure my alone time. But it’s not the whole story. I’ve enrolled in an improv class here. I’m searching Meetup for opportunities to get to know people. I enjoy people, as long as they don’t judge this book by her demure cover. Thanks to improv, my next chapter will have a healthy dose of socializing.

If the introvert label has you feeling trapped, you don’t have to play by its rules. You can be an introvert and then some. I may be biased, but I think an improv class might be just the thing. Or some other activity, perhaps. I’d love to hear what activity helps you challenge your labels.

In the words of Hawking, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.Lisa “Sooner Schooner” Swope is a ComedySportz® Richmond Alumni “on assignment” checking out the improv scene in Oklahoma.

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