what’s in a name

his and hers name tags

Choosing a name for a baby is no mean feat.  In fact, today it’s got its own market.  Considerations include the meaning of a name, its country of origin, how it sounds with a certain middle name, whether a beloved family member past or present held the name, which famous (or infamous) people may have shared the name, and what possible nicknames (both kind and unkind) may be.  Even how easy the name will be to learn to spell in Kindergarten, or how it will look on a future business card,  are included in the process.  It’s a wonder anyone winds up with a name at all.

Then there are the sensation stories, where someone tries to name their baby a naughty or controversial word as some expression of their freedom of speech.  Or they try to get away with using “∏²/Picasso” as a name, in order to seem edgy and avant garde.

As adults, some just find their name unappealing, and go to court to trade “Lucy” for “Sunshine,” or “Mehitabel” for the more unassuming “Mary.”

Once names are assigned or chosen, they become commodities, exchanged or denied in their own sort of economy.  We marry and change last names.  Or hyphenate them.  Or don’t take a spouse’s new name at all.  Some choose to drop a last name in favor of resuming a former name upon divorce, or to dissociate from parents.  Still others adopt an entirely new name upon blending established families.

Those parents who labored in love to find just the right combination for their little one’s name later use it to strike fear into misbehaving children:  “Jonathan Percival Carter, you leave your sister alone this instant!”  I’m unsure as to whether this occurs as a reminder of original ownership rights, or as a means of filling the mouth long enough not to swear.

Then, of course, titles and nicknames and pet names get thrown into the mix, and you’d darn-well better know which combination to choose depending on relationship, setting, and intangible emotional factors.  A female child named Jane Francis Smith may be called many things in her lifetime.

She is simply “Jane” to her girlfriends in grade school, but perhaps “Janie Brainy” to the taunting boys.

However, when she receives her Ph.D. in astrophysics, her closest friends rarely call her “Jane” anymore, but rather have re-adopted “Janie Brainy” or just “Brainy,” which is now a term of endearment.  Her TA calls her “Jane” in private, but “Doctor Smith” at school functions or in front of students.  The students call her “Doctor Smith,” as well, except those few whom she has invited to call her “Doc.”

Her sister still calls her “Jan-Fran,” but she is the only one allowed to do so.

Mom calls her “Janie” or “Baby Doll,” the latter of which her husband tried to get away with calling her once and was met with a warning glare stern enough to end that particular pet name.  He calls her “Janie” or “Sweetheart.”  Sometimes late at night, he calls her “Doctor” in a low and sultry tone of voice, but that is certainly none of our business.

Her daughter calls her “Mom” and her son calls her “Ma.”  That is, of course, unless they need to butter her up for something, in which case they call her “Mumsy” or “Mumsicle.”  When they really want to tick her off, they call her “Jane.”  When they no longer value their freedom or their lives, they brave “Francis.”

Her nieces and nephews called her “Auntie Jane” when they were younger, but have taken to calling her “Aunt Jane” in recent years, much to her dismay.  Whenever they do so, she cuts them off with “… that’s Auntie Jane, please.”

The children at church call her “Mrs. Smith,” or, as they get to know her, “Miss Janie.”

And this is all over a girl named “Jane Smith,” no less.

Imagine how confusing it might all have gotten had she been named “Elizabeth.”  The childhood taunt of “Janie Brainy” might have become “Booksy Betsy,” but now we’d have to contend with “Lisa, Liza, Liz, Betty, Betsy, Beth,” and a host of others.  One reference lists nearly 100 possible nicknames for “Elizabeth”!

In the end, what does it matter?  It’s just an arbitrary label, isn’t it?

All of the hullabaloo over it would seem to suggest otherwise.

A name is not just a word.  It is an identity.  Many have heard our name through flesh and amniotic fluid since before we were born.  It is comfort.  Whether spoken in love, lust, respect or anger, it says, “I see you” rather than “I see past you.”  It is an acknowledgment that we are.

I’ve noticed that when someone calls me “Erik,” it sounds different to me than when they talk to or about another person by the same name.  A name is infused with – something – when we speak it with intention to its owner.

Why is it, then, that we go about life ignoring the names of most people around us, denying each other of that important piece of our central identity?

“But I don’t know those people’s names,” you may protest.  True.  And it would be impossible to know the name of every passer-by.  But for hundreds of people around us daily,  it is possible to break the cycle of isolation that we tend to fall into, and to connect with others by knowing – and using – their names.

Let’s start easy.  Most service workers wear a name tag:

The drive-thru worker at the coffee shop.

The pool maintenance man.

The receptionist at the doctor’s office.

The bank teller.

The mai·tre d’, waitstaff, bartenders and bussers at restaurants.

The cashiers, baggers and runners at the grocery store.

The guy who works in the electronics department at WalMart.

Such name tags are all around us.  And for what purpose do you imagine that they exist?  Someone somewhere thought it might be a good customer service relations move.  But if we are completely honest, if we acknowledge the names of these people (people, PEOPLE!) at all, it is when we are dissatisfied with their performance or have some other bone to pick with the establishment.  How terrible it must be, to only hear your name spoken in anger and irritation, eight or more hours a day, five days a week.

But imagine simply saying, “Hi, Charlene, how’s your day going?” to that teller.  Or “Thank you, Mark.  You’ve been a big help” to the kid who helped you with your bags at the grocer.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make a bold claim here.  That is, ignoring names in such everyday cases is an indicator that we are treating people as props – machines that exist solely for our comfort and benefit – rather than as the human beings they are.  Conversely, when I notice and use someone’s name, I am treating them as I would like to be treated – with care and kindness, as a real person.

What’s more, I can usually offer my own name.  It’s simple really, though it may take a jump start for you to get into the habit.  So imagine.  I’m at a restaurant.  My server comes over and says, “Hi, my name is Julian and I’ll be your server.  Can I start you off with something to drink today?” (Note: the interaction thus far is scripted, and does not constitute “real communication” merely because Julian has provided his name.)  I reply, “Hi, Julian, my name is Erik.  Nice to meet you.  Yes, I think I’ll have a Diet Coke, thanks.”  Aha! Now, the invisible wall has been shattered.  I’ve used his name and given my own.  Small niceties were included, but real connection with another human being happened, because of my choice to use our names.  And I can all but guarantee that Julian’s next reply will not continue on-script with, “One Diet Coke. I’ll be right back to take your order.”

Was this difficult?  For some, it might be a slight challenge.  But it is not difficult in the mechanics of it.

So, what about all those people who don’t go around making it easy for us by wearing name tags?  News flash: they’ve invented this handy new strategy called … asking.

Let’s go back to the restaurant.  My server is not wearing a name tag.  He says, “Hi, can I start you off with something to drink today?”  I reply, “Hi, I’m Erik.  What’s your name?”  He says, “Oh, hi, Erik.  I’m Julian.”

It’s almost magical, I tell you.  Works every time.

I have a heart for the homeless.  Shaking their cups and cans for money doesn’t really bother me.  But I’ve found, from Providence to Paris, that a bigger gift than money is asking someone’s name, telling them mine, and then talking with them for a moment or two, using their name often.  I recall asking one such homeless woman for her name.  She hesitated.  She couldn’t remember.  She’d been called many things over the years, but it had been so long since she’d heard her own name spoken that she’d nearly forgotten it.  Speaking someone’s name gives them dignity.  Equality.  It restores their humanity, if only for those moments.

Moving around your day with the intention of interacting — knowing people and being known – changes everything.  It results in more smiles.  More surprises.  More reminders that you are alive and on a planet with billions of unique and fascinating individuals.

I’d just gotten back from my second trip to North Carolina.  Road trips do you in.  You eat junk food from whichever chain restaurants and convenience stores present the fastest off-and-on to the highway.  In this case, I’d done so for sixteen hours.  Leaves you feeling not so fresh and sunny the next day.  So, for lunch this past Sunday, I stopped at a sit-down restaurant and ordered just a Diet Coke and a salad.

Despite my paltry order and its promise of a pittance of a tip, my server, Marcella, treated me as if I were a party of four ordering up a storm.  She was friendly and accommodating, and checked on me often.

While I waited, I noticed a particular bus boy, a tall kid with glasses who smiled even when no one was looking.  I watched him as he looked for people to help.  As servers came by with empties, he would step out and say, “Let me take that for you.”  If someone ran out of bread, he offered to refill it.  When I removed my straw wrapper and placed it off to the side of the table, he came over with a smile: “Let me get that.”  He was not wearing a name tag.  I asked Marcella.  She said his name was Brandon, and that he was new.  I told her how remarkable I’d found him, how he stood out for his pleasant nature and work ethic.

I then asked another server passing by if she might get the manager for me.  The manager was a smartly-dressed young man named Shawn.  I told him that I wanted to “reverse complain” about Marcella and Brandon.  He smiled broadly, not sure if this was a joke.  I told him how much I had appreciated Marcella’s service and attentiveness, in spite of my small order.  I told him all I had noticed about the hard-working Brandon, adding, “You’d better keep that one around!”

Shawn shook his head.  “That’s really cool!  When people call for me, it’s nearly always to complain.  You have no idea how infrequently we hear what we are doing right.”  We shook hands and off he went.

When Marcella returned, she told me that Shawn had given me my lunch on the house.  This was entirely unnecessary, but very appreciated.  I tipped Marcella anyway, and left.

Once home, I looked up the address for the restaurant.  I took note of Shawn’s last name, which was posted online.  This took all of one minute.  I then wrote a quick thank-you card for his kindness, expressing what an enjoyable lunch I’d had all around, and popped it in the mail.  This was not my way of hoping for another free lunch.  It was just taking some time and simple measures to treat people as people — to live with them, instead of merely living around them.

I shared this story with Chad and told him that I might write about it.  He thought it was very cool, indeed, but wondered if some people might be disappointed when they try to repeat the experiment, and don’t wind up with free lunch or some other personal benefit as a result.  My thought to him was that, if you are engaging with people for what you can get out of it, that is manipulation.  And manipulation doesn’t always work.  But if you are doing it because you want to value people and have genuine interactions with them, you will always come out of it feeling rewarded.

Using people’s names is just one more way to stay outward focused, instead of being all about me.  Whether it is your neighbors, co-workers, gas attendants or people on the train, each has a real life.  An important life.  Struggles. Goals.  Dreams.  Families.  At core, I believe we each want to connect.  To matter.

We each have a name.  Look for opportunities to really see people.  Interact.  Be vulnerable.  Be genuine.  Before long, what may have once seemed daunting will become a natural, full and enjoyable way of life.

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