How do the labels we use change our reality?

Language is inherently imperfect. As humans, we communicate the majority of our experiences with words. These words have connotations that we use to organise concepts into our brains. When we encounter new information, we immediately seek to file it based on our pre-existing understanding of the world.

In domestic and family violence, words such as victim, perpetrator, or witness, all place women, men, and children who are subjected to or use violence into pre-existing camps. We do this so we can understand their complex experience. Language is the words we use, but these words are only representations of ideas, objects, experiences, places of the world around us.

If we want to assist women who have experienced domestic and family violence in the best way possible, we need to start by understanding the connotations behind the language we use.

I am not arguing to stop using words such as victim, witness or perpetrator. Merely, I seek to explain why we should be aware of the power our language holds when we discuss domestic and family violence and the positive or negative impacts it can have.

Sheldon Cooper’s character from The Big Bang Theory, is a humorous example of labelling gone too far. In one episode, Howard, Sheldon’s friend, exclaims “Everything in his (Sheldon’s) apartment has a label on it. Including his own label maker, which has a label that says label maker”.

This need that Sheldon has towards categorising, is mirrored by our own desire to label the world with visible and invisible tags.

We have a desire to label everything so we can understand it.

Labels can become so useful that we find it difficult to escape them. Making life easier in some situations as they convert into fundamental points, like a speedy reaction and orientation to activate a previously embedded response mechanism.  Something we learn without having to think about it. They become simplified triggers that connect a complex reality with a simple answer or tag.

Our desire for labels also comes, in large part, from the need to feel safe and control our environment, just like Sheldon Cooper.  A label makes us feel we have the control, even if it is a misconception.

If we label a person as “toxic”, we make an assumption that can keep us away from the person or not want to know anything more about them.  Same if they are “undesirable” or a “perpetrator”.  We will do everything to stay our distance.  On the same logic, if you call someone a “victim”, you will ‘see’ them with different eyes and not necessarily the way you want them to see you.

The problem is that the world we live in is not so simple. Every time we apply a label we are reducing the wealth and welfare of what or who we are labelling. When we classify the events as “good” or “bad”, we stop perceiving the person or situation and make assumptions that may be incorrect. Every time we label someone, we deny their wealth and intricacy.

Do You Suffer From Label Maker Syndrome?

Most of us have had some exposure to a different language. Traveling and learning basic sentences, discovering a new language, interacting with someone whose second language is English, or even being fluent in another language ourselves.

Language is the most elaborate and powerful tool we use to interact with each other.

If you have ever spoken to someone whose second language is English, you may have encountered barriers to communication. This is usually a result of an incomplete knowledge of the cultural understandings that words have in your language. Anyone who has travelled abroad will be familiar with the inaccuracy of Google to reliably translate anything other than a single word.

Now, cast your attention to the difference in a language where the society is linguistically homogenous. Within Australia, we have six  different ways of saying potato scallop, seven ways of referring to swimming togs, and six ways of saying hot dog, divided by state lines, according to research conducted by the linguistics roadshow.

Australians understand what the word scallop, togs or hot dog means, but we might argue the word we use in our state to be the correct one. Go to a pub in Queensland and try to claim that the correct way to say togs is bathers or visit a hotel and order a middy when they are called pots.

What is consistent across all different uses is that we still understand that swimmers, togs, bathers, hot dogs, sausage in bread, sausage sizzle, potato cake and scallop, all mean the same across the different states.  The point is that the language we use shapes the mental image we have or create. It doesn’t matter what word we use to describe something, we would all explain it the same way. This idea is not unrelated to domestic violence and is present in the words we use to label people who have experienced it.

Thus, language is a tool we use to shape reality. It is how we understand the experiences of the world and our place in it. As we seek to understand the causes of domestic and family violence, we must identify common themes. However, our natural affinity towards grouping people into pre-existing  camps results in labelling based on common denominators. This labelling then leads us to attempt to understand domestic and family violence through a pre-set lens, when in reality, no two domestic and family violence situations are the same.

Words shape our beliefs and opinions

By placing those who have experienced domestic and family violence into categories, we are already making judgments about their experience. Consider the terms below. Who do you assign these words to and what are the implications behind each word?

Victim – Perpetrator – Witness – Aggrieved – Respondent

How do words shape our perspectives? Like the example of Sheldon and his label maker, when we discuss domestic and family violence in our communities, using phrases such as ‘she is a victim  of domestic violence,’ ‘that child has witnessed domestic violence,’ ‘he is a perpetrator of domestic violence’, we place these individuals who have gone through something deeply traumatic into homogenous groups, and boiled the individuals down to be classified as the same.

Clearly, domestic and family violence  is experienced differently by each person.

There are many forms of domestic abuse but we use broad terms to label someone’s experiences. Two views result.

  • The experience is reduced to either being a victim, a perpetrator, or a witness.
  • The violence and experience are reduced down to a single word.

By not describing the exact form of violence, calling it what it is, we can withdraw and put up a veil of ignorance or disassociation. This directly stifles our ability as a society to deal with this issue or speak up when we know there is an injustice.


What can you do to help?

Realising your words and choices have an impact is a great start.

Education and training, whether a professional or general community member, provides skills to active listening and how to respond.

Rewording phrases is a vital component to show you were listening. If someone told you they were a victim of domestic violence, would your response be textbook?  Would you know to listen with empathy and not sympathy, to clarify that there is violence or abuse being used in their home?   In educating yourself, you will understand how to approach a situation and what words to best use.

Situations like this, we see in movies but we need to remember this is reality.  Learning how to express our words can determine the best way to humanises the experience, that they are not an object of abuse, that you have listened and understood their unique situation.


Word choices are already difficult in everyday situations, when you add talking about any highly emotional topic, our words can often let us down.

Labels never represent the full picture and should not be relied. In any traumatic situation, to understand the full complexity requires the ‘story’ not just the simple assumptions.

Educating yourself prepares you for any situation.  Being ready with the armour of understanding to support a person in this circumstance takes awareness and empathy… and the right words.

Author: Harrisen Leckenby

A Budding Journalist

  • UNSW Masters Student 
  • The Equanimity Project Media Volunteer


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