“I Don’t Think It’s Right To Type People” – Part 1

The TYPE Reporter, Excerpts from Issue No. 37, written by Susan Scanlon

(The TYPE Reporter is a newsletter about your personality type, and how it influences you in all the stages of life.
You can subscribe by contacting Susan Scanlon, INFJ, Editor, 703-764-5370, or on the website.)

“I don’t think it’s right to type people.” You’ve heard people say that, haven’t you? Or perhaps you’ve heard them make other darkly ominous statements, like “You have to be careful with this stuff” or “You type-people must have a need to put people in boxes.”

My first reaction to statements like that is confusion. I think of the theory of psychological type as being one of the most positive thinking frameworks I’ve ever come across. I have a hard time imagining how a body of literature that consistently defines and stresses the highest potential in people can be used to harm them. My inclination is to tell as many people about type as I can, not to “be careful” with it. My second reaction is to toss those statements off to that person’s ignorance in general, or their ignorance of the type theory, to faulty reasoning, or immaturity. But that kind of conclusion never really clears things up for me. It leaves me with a bad feeling about people, and unanswered questions about the type theory.

So for this issue, I went back to the people who had made statements like that to me and asked them to explain why they had said it. I looked for patterns in their statements and gave it some thought. What I learned is that they have good reasons for being concerned about labels put on people in general. Labels are often derogatory and limiting. I realized that I have to find a way to tell people up front that although the MBTI® is a way of classifying people, it’s in a class by itself. The four preferences in a type cover so much ground in the human personality that they can actually help people avoid being mislabeled because of small aspects of their lives or personalities. And, it can help them avoid mislabeling others.

“I don’t think it’s right to type people because my experience with labels is that they’re unfair and inaccurate.”

Judy did child-care work for me for two years. She’s calm, pleasant, even-tempered, reliable, and organized. I always thought she was an ISTJ. I never thought she would be interested in type, so I didn’t mention it to her much. But then her son was about to graduate from high school, and had just found out that he was not going to be able to go into the Air Force as he had planned. His education and career path had always been clear, and now it was uncertain. Judy herself was thinking about another career at the time. I brought Judy copies of the MBTI® for herself and her son, and told her it might help them think about alternative careers.

But Judy never gave the MBTI® to her son and never took it herself. She didn’t really give me a reason, and I didn’t press her. But I always wondered about her reluctance. Her son needed help so she had good practical reasons to use the MBTI®. She trusted me, so that wasn’t the issue. But something was standing in her way.

I went back to Judy recently and asked her why she had never taken it. What she told me made me think about my own feelings when I first heard people talking about “types.” “I don’t like labels put on people because I feel I have to live up to them. I read my horoscope and see that most Scorpios are this way, and I’m not, and I feel ‘what’s wrong with me?’”

Judy cited two examples of being “labeled” from her past. One was derogatory and inaccurate. The other was complimentary but also inaccurate. Judy’s experience with being labeled was that it doesn’t fit, and it can hurt. And that’s been the experience of most of us.

The “labels” that we encounter before the MBTI® seem to fall into four categories. First, there are the hierarchies. They attempt to arrange you on a ladder with some people above you and some people below. IQ tests, school entrance exams and tracking tests, as well as psychological tests, may all be useful to other people in dealing with us, but they don’t help us understand or improve ourselves. Often we find ourselves having to ignore what we learn in those tests in order to go on thinking highly of ourselves.

Second, there are the informal, and often negative, observations that other people make about us, based upon their limited experience with us, and their own limited perspectives, like Judy’s classmates labeling her “stuck up.” When we hear these labels, we think we have been judged unfairly. Third, there are the derogatory nicknames given to our face, religion, sex, profession, hobby, or income. These labels are given to us only so that others may dismiss us quickly and easily. We can never accept them ourselves. And fourth, there are the trendy typologies like body types, astrological types, managerial types, learning styles, etc. which although they don’t generally hurt us, simply don’t fit us very well, or they describe only a small part of us.

If you are among the few who found a “label” that fit you before the MBTI®, just remember you are among the few. Most of us came to the conclusion that labels were junk at best, and threats to our self-esteem and fair treatment at worst. We learned, fairly early on, that when people set out to describe or classify us, what they came up with usually didn’t fit with our self-assessment.

The first time I heard about the MBTI® I resisted it too. We were at brunch with a couple who had recently taken it, and they were very excited about it. They were looking at me and arguing over which type I was. I remember thinking, “Here it comes. More labels that don’t help and will probably hurt.”

It was their animation, more than their explanation, that made me return to the type theory (along with the fact that I was looking for something to write about). I borrowed their book, and I was absolutely astonished to find in its pages, words that fit me perfectly, a label that I could offer to the world as a good assessment of me. Now, when I go to type conferences and they haven’t printed the types on the nameplates, or they haven’t printed them large enough, I get out my pen and write INFJ in big, bold letters.

Over time, type became second nature to me and I forgot how I felt about labels before the MBTI®. I forgot that the type theory, because it groups and names people, must share company in people’s consciousness with every labeling scheme that misjudges, denigrates, confuses, or disappoints people, or arranges people in hierarchies.

In the future, when I meet people who say they don’t want to be labeled, I’m going to draw out their past experiences with labels to see how they have been hurt or discouraged. Then I am going to tell them that their experience with type will probably be different. I’m going to tell them that the labels of type can actually protect them from being misjudged by the narrow vision of them that other people have, and the labels of type can keep them from hurting others in the same way.

“I don’t think it’s right to type people because that can lead to stereotyping.”

I heard from several people, in several different ways, that when they hear about a “type theory” they think someone is trying to tell them that they’re predictable and unoriginal, that because we know their type we know everything about them and they’re no longer capable of surprising us.

Jesse is the son of one of the staff members at The Type Reporter. He’s 16, and answered INFP on the MBTI®. When his mother read him the profile of her type, he said it really described her well. But when she read him his own profile, he said he didn’t think it was right to try and type people. “When I took the MBTI®,” he told me, “I gave the best answer I could. But I was aware that there are a million situations where that wouldn’t apply. I agree that there are general trends which govern me, but there are so many specific things to consider as well. For example, there was a question in there about whether I like big parties. Well, for me, it depends on the party. Is it a good party with a lot of energy? Do I like the people I’m talking to? Do I happen to feel good that night?” Jesse seems to think that if he tells me he’s an Introvert, I’m going to expect that he always look, think, and act like an Introvert, that I’m going to try to squeeze him into a stereotypical mold.

Tom is a friend of the family. He was enthusiastic about the type theory along with his wife, and answered the MBTI® as an ENFP. But he was also the one who said to me as I was going out the door once, “You have to be careful with this stuff.” “My problem with the type theory,“ he told me recently, “is that it doesn’t account for the personal experiences that cause people to behave un-typically. You can’t assume that you’re going to be able to go read Gifts Differing or Please Understand Me and really understand someone.”

Mark was recently married to my sister. She was explaining type to him once, and he had a negative reaction to it. When I asked him why, he said: “If you are understanding me only as my type, most of the time you’d make valid conclusions on how I’m reacting. But around 40% of the time you’d be wrong. I’m just not always acting like my type. And you might be looking and listening for what you want to hear, instead of giving me a chance to express myself.”

All of these people seem to be saying that when you tell people that they prefer certain things most of the time, you are ignoring all the times when they prefer it the other way. They seem to be saying that if you tell people the ways that they are like many people, you are ignoring all the ways that they are unique. You are, in effect, robbing them of their freedom and individuality. These are hefty concerns. But are people justified in having them? Does a theory like psychological type really make us vulnerable to seeing people only in terms of their type?

I think the answer is—for awhile. After you first learn about the theory, you are naturally going to go through a phase where you have an oversimplified, beginner’s understanding of the preferences. I remember when I first learned about the theory, I tried telling an ENTJ that she couldn’t be a Thinking type because she was just too warm and friendly. I tried telling an ENTP that he couldn’t be a Thinking type because he had cried while watching the movie Captains Courageous and was absolutely dotty about his kids. I tried telling an ISFJ that he couldn’t be a Sensing type because his profession was in selling books, and books were abstractions.

Although it’s pretty natural to begin by oversimplifying people, it’s tough to keep it up. Time takes care of that. You see your ENTJ friends use their Thinking, but you also see them use their Feeling. You meet five ISFJs and they’re each quite unique. You get annoyed when someone tries to tell you that you can’t be your type because you just did something untypical.

Gradually, you develop a more complex understanding of type. Gradually, you begin to enjoy not just the way the theory works for everyone, but the unique way that each individual expresses his or her type. You begin to understand that type is like an overcoat. You can put the same overcoat on a roomful of people, but no two people are going to look the same in it.

When you hear a person expressing concern about type being used to oversimplify or stereotype people, you can tell them that the literature and the people with experience in type are not guilty of that, but that inexperienced people may be. And that type used in such a narrow way is not a reflection on the theory itself, but on the initial, unseasoned enthusiasm of the user.

You can also tell them that if it’s at all possible, they should try to learn about their type from an experienced professional and the accepted literature, and avoid the interpretations of newcomers, or at least take them with a large grain of salt.

Tom was one of the victims of my early oversimplifying, and he may have been referring to me when he said, “I think it takes a lot of careful use, and a little knowledge of it is a dangerous thing.”

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