Sunday, January 13, 2013

My coffee shop name

You may have read the article on the Economist blog recently called 'My Starbucks Name'. The guy who wrote it has a name that he considers a liability in coffee shops so when the baristas ask his name he uses a pseudonym, "Sam", that's easy to say. "If you use a Starbucks name, why do you do it? For convenience, speed, or privacy?" he asks. As well as prompting me to answer him, I found the article interesting for two reasons.

One: if a blog post about giving a made-up name to the person who makes your coffee is good enough for The Economist (even if the blog is about words and language) then I'm going to stop worrying about the relevance of my posts.

Two: I know how S.A.P. (the Economist blogger) feels. His article brought me back to a situation a couple of years ago when I did the same thing myself. I adopted a coffee shop name.

The Story

Every day at 2 o'clock we would take the lift down from the 8th floor to go and get coffee. Even if you didn't particularly want coffee, you would go and get coffee. There were usually around 5 of us and we always went to the same place straight after lunch. It was happy hour: $2 for a huge coffee.

It was usually busy so we needed to streamline our operation. I had struggled to make my name (Ralph, but pronounced Rafe) understood to people who worked in other coffee shops and I was sick of explaining how to pronounce my name over and over, so I hit on the idea of picking a name for this new place, a Starbucks name, one that worked well over a noisy channel: Alex. As well as being my kid's name, it's short and doesn't tend to get confused with other names.

Alexander at Bohali"Hey Dad, can I use the computer?" "Sure son, if I can use your name."

Why not just allow my name to be pronounced the normal, phonetic way, i.e. pronounced 'Ralf'? Well, I consider that to be a different name, and if I'm going to capitulate on the name thing I'm going to at least please myself and pick a name I feel like using for this purpose, not the mispronounced version of my actual name. And it all worked fine for a while: we'd banter with the girls who served us while we ordered and then waited, and they'd use my name as part of the conversation. But I was just getting in deeper.

Hacking coffee time

I thought I was being clever, hacking coffee time - I thought I was simply using a variable. But when the barista girls found out my name wasn't actually Alex they didn't see it like that. They thought I was a bit of a creep. Names matter, and it seemed I had deceived them. They professed to be outraged and shocked. Undoubtedly there was a bit of game-playing and silliness going on. But there was little doubt that they did consider that I had breached some sort of social contract, however tenuous our relationship. Maybe it was because since they had to wear a name badge all the time, customers should be equally transparent with their names - I don't know.

When I explained to them why I’d done it they claimed to understand, but I still got the odd crack about it for weeks after. This is despite the fact that they could see what happened when I used my real name in front of any of their co-workers who weren’t privy to the whole name change thing. We both would watch them get confused, and they could see first-hand why I did it. In fact, they themselves, the ones who had made the biggest fuss, would start getting my name wrong, until ultimately I said “Please, let’s just revert to my coffee shop name.”

The boxes of our mind, and their labels

What I find interesting about the whole thing is to imagine how the people with whom you use a pseudonym might react when you reveal it's just that; a fake name. I actually don't blame the coffee-shop people for being ticked off. We put people in little labelled boxes in our mind, each friend or acquaintance, even just coffee-shop acquaintances, and it's jarring to have them taken out and shuffled around. Usually people go in a box and stay there - you don't often mistake someone's name and have to relabel them, so it's not something you're used to.

So that’s why I use a coffee shop name. That term has a nice ring to it, and I don’t use Starbucks, so that’s the term I’m using.