May 31, 2013

What’s in a name

Addressing someone personally should be reserved for those who make the effort to know her.

My name isn’t mine. It is not a thing to which I hold exclusive access; it is distributed freely at the end of this article, and even if it weren’t, I’m bound by social convention to hand it over to you if you ask. Within certain legal and moral bounds, you’re free and welcome to do with it as you please.

My name isn’t mine, but I want it back.

Naturally, there are people who have very good reasons to know my name and regularly refer to me by it—personal acquaintances, classmates, and work colleagues all find it convenient to be able to speak to and about me with something more specific than “that one guy.” Nonetheless, I frequently encounter people and companies who have no business whatsoever knowing my name but address me by it anyway. There was a time when I thought these instances were passing annoyances, irking inconveniences to be politely disregarded. Now I can’t help but wonder if there is something deeper and quite a bit more troubling going on under the surface here.

Though found in many other languages, a systematic distinction between formal and informal second person pronouns last existed in English over three centuries ago. Yet, we still have a diverse array of strategies at our disposal for expressing our relationship to our conversational partners. Addressing an interlocutor by her name is among them. Knowing her name, of course, requires some degree of intimacy, so calling her by it indicates a close relationship. Going out of your way to learn or remember the name of a person with whom you actually have no real bond is a clever strategy to either, under the best of circumstances, materialize such a bond or, if there are other motives in play, elicit interest in yourself or your cause by—disingenuously—convincing your interlocutor that you are interested in her as a person.

Those “personalized” e-mails that desperately try to flatter you by addressing you by your first name? That guy you had a two-minute conversation with at a party last year who somehow forgot to forget your name in the meanwhile? Nine times out of 10 they’re banking on you being flattered by their good memory and want to use this flattery to their advantage. This should hardly surprise you, and it is not troubling in itself—at least not once you learn to recognize it when you’re on the receiving end. I do think, however, that the pervasive use of this strategy—wielding knowledge of someone’s name to effectively lie about your relationship status or degree of interest in them as a person—does indeed lead to unsavory consequences. I’ll sketch two of them here.

A name is an association between a linguistic object—a set of graphemes or phonemes—and an object in the real world. If you forcefully attach a name to me on the basis of a brief encounter you had with me, you’re not linking the name to deeper aspects of my character—you’re likely linking it to my physical appearance and my most public persona: the way I act toward total strangers. Even if you later get to know me better as a person, the foundation of your conception of me will still be those superficial aspects that are now indelibly linked to my name in your mind. If you had instead waited to solidify your conception of me until you could honestly say you knew who I was as a person, you’d be carrying around a much more authentic picture of me in your head.

In conjunction with this risk of a troubling shift in the content of identity, I would argue that a prevalent use of names in cases where the relationship is not yet close enough to warrant it contributes to a systematic cheapening of identity itself. The strategy as I’ve described it above works by using the name as a proxy for real knowledge about another person—and it’s easy to lose track of the name’s proxy status and assume actual knowledge of the person on the shaky grounds of knowing their name or how they look.

With few exceptions (e.g. settings like classrooms where you can be assured that you will get to know your interlocutors better in the near future), you should not have to work to remember someone else’s name—if you know them well enough already, their name will occur effortlessly to you. If you don’t, you should direct your efforts instead toward getting to know them better.

Tyler Lutz is a fourth-year in the College majoring in physics and English.