‘Why are you talking with her? She’s a prostitute.’ The disdain in his voice was palpable. The young woman had approached me as I sat at the roadside. Walking in the Thai heat and humidity had left me sapped of energy so I was relieved to sip on a cool drink and rest for a while. She had smiled at first and started polite conversation. Was I here on holiday? Was I here alone? Then she moved closer and moved on: Would I like some company? Would I like to take her to my hotel room?
I responded kindly – and firmly. I was happy to talk, I was happy to buy her a cold drink too, but I would not take her to my hotel room. Period. She persisted for a while but then gave up. ‘OK, a cool drink would be nice.’ To my surprise, she stayed and talked for the next 3 hours. She told me about her life, her children, why she was doing this, how she handles what she does physically, mentally and emotionally, what her hopes and fears were for the future. I have rarely felt so humbled.
The thing that struck me most in this encounter was how it felt to meet this special person as a precious human being, a child of God, not as a prostitute. Even the word feels jarring, demeaning and dehumanising as if this label sums up everything someone is and is capable of. Before she left, this woman explained that she uses a pseudonym at work as a way of splitting off her true self from what she does. Then she told me...her real name. I felt honoured, clasped her hands and thanked her.
As professionals, how often do we and others apply labels (e.g. job titles, role stereotypes) – sometime values-laden, sometimes convenient – to ourselves and to others that simplify reality yet blind us to the broader richness and complexity of who we and who other people and teams are and could be? If we were to peel back the labels to reveal the astonishing human beings that lay hidden behind them, what potential could be released in us, other people, teams and organisations?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.