What's in a Name? | A Cup of Jo

Once upon a time, I took a class about negotiation. The instructor started off with a question: What is everyone’s favorite word?

“Me?” someone wagered a guess. “I?” guessed another. “Money!” shouted a dude in the back row. None of these was the answer.

“Their name!” bellowed the instructor, a bit too pleased that he’d stumped us. “Everyone’s favorite word is their name. If you want to make somebody feel important, if you want to put them at ease, you must say their name and say it often.”

I’ve thought of this wisdom again and again, as I have some conflicted feelings about it…

There’s no denying that names are important. There are endless lists of baby names and sites dedicated to what your name says about you. But is your name as important as everyone makes it out to be? Will a boy named Lion grow up to be fierce? If you change your name, do you change yourself?

Over the years, I’ve been called all sorts of things…

In elementary school, I was awarded this nickname for being small and fuzzy. Thanks, classmates! “Kiwi like the bird or the fruit?” I remember my parents asking. Like it made a difference.

Early in my career, I interned in an office that was so busy, they sometimes had trouble learning the interns’ names. “Intern! Intern!” harried staffers would shout, when they needed a photocopy or a low-level human to fetch a Rice Krispie treat. Did we like this? No. Will I make a point to learn interns’ names forever and ever? Yes, yes, I will.

For the first 20 years of my life, I went by the shortened “Carrie.” Caroline seemed too prim and proper, with too many letters to scrawl at the top of my kindergarten activity sheets. I was sometimes compared to this person or this person. For the most part, though, I never gave my name much thought.

In my 20’s, I re-branded myself. This sounds like I’m a food product from Kraft or Nabisco, but it wasn’t that calculated. “Caroline” sounded more grown up. I had always pictured adulthood as a time when I would wear eyeglasses and drink coffee out of a ceramic mug, while reading the newspaper and nodding. Carrie never managed to do things like that, but Caroline totally would.

Over time, a funny thing happened. My new name felt more comfortable and familiar. I began introducing myself exclusively as Caroline, grew accustomed to three syllables rolling off my tongue. Over a decade later, I can’t imagine it any other way.

I once spent an entire relationship calling my boyfriend by the creative nickname… “Boyfriend.” He called me Girlfriend. It started as a joke, but lasted forever. I’d like to think it was charming, sort of how Holly Golightly calls her cat “Cat.” But in the harsh glare of hindsight, I am forced to concede that perhaps our lack of name usage (proper, pet or otherwise) led to decreased familiarity between us. “I’m not sure what my name sounds like in your voice,” he once said. Oops?

There’s no denying that addressing someone by name fosters a connection; their words are directed solely at you. Remember the “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry can’t remember his date’s name, but knows it rhymes with a female body part? (“Mulva?”) Epic fail.

On the other hand, inserting people’s names into conversations can often sound forced — or worse, creepy and manipulative. When a first date addresses me by name, I can’t help but feel like I’m sharing a meal with Hannibal Lecter. (“Hello, Clarice.”)

That said, calling people by their names is something I’m trying to make a habit. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but you should probably just call it a rose anyway.

What names have you been called throughout your life? Nicknames? Changed names? To bring the question full circle, do you think that what someone calls you informs your relationship with them?

P.S. A trick for avoiding small talk and will you change your name when you get married?