Labeling is ubiquitous. It is also one of the greatest divisive forces among religious Jewry today and a major obstacle in the shidduch world. Terms such as "Yeshivish", "Lakewood Yeshivish" "Modern Orthodox", "Frum", "Kippah Seruga" "Charedi", "YU Type", and "Black Hat Type" (to name just a few) are bandied about without any thought given to the severe ramifications of this reckless usage.
Those who use these labels commonly claim that labels are necessary, even beneficial. They argue that "everyone uses them" and that "people choose to define themselves by these terms". Furthermore, using labels saves one the trouble of giving a lengthy description of specifically what they have in mind.
These arguments are weak. The fact that lots of people engage in a particular sort of behavior does not justify this behavior. Lots of people speak lashon hara, too, but that's no reason to do it.
The fact that people choose to define themselves by these terms does not mean that these terms are meaningful or accurate, nor that YOU should define them by these terms. What, exactly, is the definition of "Yeshivish"? Or "Modern Orthodox"? Whole books have been written about the subject. What's a "YU Type"? You can find most any type of Jew at YU, so how could there possibly be a "type"? There are so many definitions that these terms are essentially devoid of ANY meaning -- that's why derivative labels continue to be created (YU Bais Medrash type, for example).
The problems with labeling are most poignantly manifest when it comes to shidduchim. Shadchanim insist on people branding themselves with a label, and will only set up those who choose the same one. Those searching for shidduchim use labels to express what they are looking for,and assume the listener really understands.
One Internet dating site asks users to choose from among 13 "philosophies", (presented here in a slightly different order to highlight the absurdity): "Orthodox", "Shomer Mitzvot", "Frum", "Modern Orthodox", "Modern Chassidish", "Chassidish", "Breslover", "Chabad", "Litvish", "Black Hat", "Yeshivish", "Daati Leumi, and "Charedi Daati Leumi". Whether or not two people are set up hinges on the obscure presumed definitions of these terms. And this is supposed to SIMPLIFY dating?
Here's an actual example from an e-mail sent to EndTheMadness: "The question I have is an old one, but I hope you can answer it--how can she meet a normal guy, "Modern Orthodox MACHMIR," as Frumster puts it? Are there shadchanim who specialize in the YU world, not just the black hat types?"
Now what in the world is that supposed to mean? After all, there are no universal definitions for any of the labels used above, and thus any definition will have lots of exceptions. We suggested that the writer describe what she was looking for in a specific way, avoiding categorizing, and being sure to know exactly who she was including and who she was excluding. It was not as difficult as one might have expected (someone totally committed to the Torah and halacha, and who views active participation in the world at large as part of this commitment).
Avoiding labels will take practice, and will require that people think carefully about what they really mean to say. But that is only a good thing. As difficult as it may be at first, it will help immeasurably. By avoiding labels you will clarify in your own mind what it is you mean and you will accurately express this to other people. In addition, you will stop perpetuating stereotypes that are inaccurate and harm the numerous exceptions. You will train yourself to see each person as a unique individual and to focus on meaningful behaviors, not misleading superficialities.
And avoiding labels is easier than most people think. It will cost little if anything in terms of time, and prevents the problems caused by a poorly communicated message.