Judies and Maurices: Why We Need to Stop Labeling People
This post needed a home, so I imported it here from another blog. Not about Buddhism, but about not so easily slapping labels on people.
“There are two kinds of people: Judies and Maurices.”
“Just two?” I asked. It was one of those long days in the 1980s before the explosion of the Internet. Some days, on the campus of the nontraditional college I was attending at the time, seemed to be elastic: some too short days overflowed with classes and activity, while others seemed to stretch to absurd lengths.
On such days, our on-but-away-from-campus duplex – which was supposed to house four women – ended up with a random assortment of people wandering in and out. And with conversations like this one I was having with one of my roommates to pass the time.
One of my roommates, a couple of days before delivering this particular theory to me, speculated that one of our “unofficial” housemates – a guy with a sort of scary punk goth look, black leather, and spikes –just may be the Green River Killer. We were, after all, in the PNW, the world capital of serial killers.
I disagreed. Probably, I countered, the actual killer was some guy who dressed in bland, regular clothing that you’d never expect. Our house-visitor, I said, probably had a secret life where he collected Care Bears, called Mom every day, and liked to bake cupcakes.
It was at that point that I typecast my roommate as a typecaster; this conversation was only confirming my judgment. My typecasting of her duly revealed my status as a typecaster. But I listened as she expounded upon her Theory of Judy and Maurice. Maurice, she explained, was a guy with slick hair, probably with a mustache, often seen sporting sleeveless black tees. Judies were endlessly perky people, possibly with flip hairdos who were so seemingly happy and positive all the time that it induced nausea in the observer.
While I wasn’t a convert to her theory, I became a participant. I didn’t honestly like what she was saying, but I knew what she meant. I knew people I could stick into either category. I knew Judies and Maurices.
Jumping out of my beanbag chair, I excitedly exclaimed: ” Oh! Oh! My older sister’s name is Judy! She’s an evangelical Christian, and in the 70s, she used to wear a t-shirt with a cute cartoon mouse and flower on the front that said ‘Sweet! Judy Blue Eyes.’ on the back! She used to write spontaneous songs like ‘I like you, and you like me’ on the piano!”
“YES!” She exclaimed, getting excited. “Your Judy is EXACTLY a Judy!”
I then asked, perhaps, wasn’t Freddie Mercury an example of a Maurice?
“YESSS!” She jumped out of her chair. “Freddy is DEFINITELY a Maurice! You understand me perfectly!”
This conversation, though, didn’t have legs. To my recollection, there was not much more to say about Judies and Maurices that day. This type of typecasting is generally pretty shallow. Nor did we devise additional categories of people to add to her theory. Twitter didn’t yet exist, and things didn’t go “viral,” except for viruses. So Judy, unlike Karen, fortunately, didn’t get the chance to enter the public consciousness as a meme. Maurice, thankfully, remained a conversation between two bored college students on an Autumn afternoon.((Until now!!))
I was happy enough to move the conversation on to different topics; part of me was cringing at my participation in this name-calling game.
Labeling people reduces them to a sort of thingness. Name-calling and label-giving deny and prevent us from seeing that people are multidimensional. None of us is only one thing. Label someone a Maurice, and you may not see past the mustache. Call someone a Judy, and you’ll stop right there and you might not be able to see past the smile. To see all the things about Judy that are not-Judy.
Our brain, of course, is hard-wired to categorize and to make snap judgments. We do so readily, subconsciously, before we think. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism, one that helps us quickly assess threats in an environment, and protect ourselves against dangerous situations.
But, aside from environmental threats, we are continually making subconscious assessments of people all the time. Our brain is, for instance, judging the trustworthiness of a face even before that face is consciously perceived.1Evolutionarily, of course, this served as a survival mechanism. Does this person mean to help me or cause me harm? Our amygdala is secretly sizing people up all the time, sneakily working beneath our awareness.
Maybe we don’t meet someone and immediately think, “Here is a Judy,” but perhaps part of our brain decides, without even asking the actual Judy before us, what her outlook on life is. What her religious and political beliefs are. The quality of her inner life. Her hopes and dreams. Our brain has decided, “It is known.” And since we already know, there is no need to question, discuss, or converse.
However – and I’m speaking from personal experience here – these sneaky judgments do bubble up to the surface if we’re willing, to be honest with ourselves and look for them, question them: Why do I feel an immediate and irrational distrust towards anyone named Jennifer? How did I decide that I could trust this, particular, financial advisor, even in the absence of references?
There are times, often enough, that our immediate intuitions and snap judgments are correct – our amygdala can be pretty smart. So it’s worth looking at whether those gut feelings have merit consciously. In some cases, they are living up to their evolutionary value of protecting us by giving us a warning when a situation is not quite right, or a person is untrustworthy. Those gut reactions, knee-jerk responses, maybe giving you important cues or safety warnings.
But it’s a mistake to accept these gut feelings as truth without any question just because sometimes they are right. They can also totally be fooling you.
In many cases, of course, these snap judgments reflect familial and societal conditioning or your prior experiences vs. factual truth. Here’s some simple bumper-sticker wisdom to turn into an everyday practice: “Don’t believe everything you think.” If you pay attention, you can sometimes actively catch these gut responses, so you can turn them over in your mind, question them, let the microscope of your frontal cortex do its thing. Doing the work of looking deeply at those intuitions and identifying when those gut feelings reflect intrinsic biases is a worthy endeavor.2
Sometimes people, whatever their motivation to do so, decide to codify judgments of people into a single label, a “type.” Perhaps the old conversation with my college roommate about Judies and Maurices popped into my mind because of the recent talk about “Karens.”3
A Karen, of course, is the stereotype of a certain kind of woman. You probably know a Karen. She’s a middle-aged white woman with a specific type of hairstyle, particular political-social attitudes, a certain way of responding to situations. A Karen demands to speak to the manager. A Karen identifies threat from a Black man walking by her in the park when he’s just a guy out taking a jog the same as her. A Karen eschews vaccination for her kids.
However, slapping someone with a label of “Karen” potentially cuts off all conversation with that Karen-who-is-more-than-just-a-Karen. See her as a multidimensional human being, even if you strongly disagree with her attitudes. You may((Though I will acknowledge here that I have never been incredibly successful in actually changing someone’s entrenched attitudes the few times I’ve tried.)) be able to engage in a discussion((I acknowledge that I’m reaching here — my attempts at any discussion with people with entrenched irrational beliefs have never been very productive)) that, if it doesn’t bring about any significant change in attitude, will at least allow you to maybe both acknowledge your mutual humanity, to see at least a bit of the person behind the label. Call her Karen, and you cancel her.4
Labeling and name-calling, of course, work the same on a small scale as well. Someone I know well had a family member coming to visit with whom she had a difficult relationship. Before her visitor arrived, she regaled family and friends with tales about this family member and gave her a nickname. The nickname was so funny and conjured up such a mental image in the listener that it was difficult to forget. It was also meant to be derogatory – and it was difficult for me to unsee/unhear when I actually met this individual in person.
I’m a mother who has gone through more emotional ups and downs, more joys and heartaches than I can count because of my choice to put myself in that role. Call me a “Breeder,” and you negate that. Say “OK Boomer((I have much-older siblings who are, in fact, boomers, and found it both hilarious and annoying when my mom found, for some reason, that she had to explain to me, very slowly, “Your brothers and sisters are all Baby Boomers but YOU are Generation X.”)) and cut me off mid-sentence, and you don’t give me a chance to express other views which you might find to be decidedly non-boomerish.
We can never know the totality of another person’s life. Even when we’re close, at some level, another person’s experiences, thoughts, memories, will always be a mystery to us. But namecalling, pigeonholing, of reducing someone to a label and a “type,” can, indeed, block us from seeing other aspects of that individual. The only way to counter this, it seems, is to see past “Judy” and “Maurice” consciously. To make a decision, every time, to see a person rather than a type. To stop labeling people.5
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- It seems that some people don’t care about overcoming their biases – I used to encounter more of this in my earlier years of being a very young therapist working with the very old. In those days, I more frequently encountered explicitly sexist or racist patients. Some of these patients were women who made no bones about the fact that they would never consider a female doctor and were upfront that they would prefer a male therapist over me. Others were overtly racist, refusing to work with non-white care providers. In my later years of working in geriatrics, I didn’t encounter this overt racism and sexism often. Generational change?
- Anecdotally, I have another sister named Karen, whose partner is also Karen, and neither one is a “Karen.” I heard about Karens a few years ago from my daughter, who referenced them while complaining about anti-vaxxers. When they came up in the news recently, she just said, “Well, I keep up on the memes, the media’s always behind.”
- Unless her real name is Karen, of course. Additionally, you might find that the person your mind instantly labeled a Karen based on her hairdo, age, etc. is actually NOT a Karen. Or you might find that she is and that further conversation seems pointless. I’m not advocating letting the actions and attitudes of the so-called “Karen’ slide. Just to be clear, I’m just discouraging name-calling. Having grown up with a dad who was an expert name-caller at times when it came to his kids, I’m sensitive to this.
- Unless, of course, you’re wearing a MAGA hat. I still haven’t come that far!