Over the course of a flight to NY earlier this week, my seatmate and I covered an impressive span of topics. From his daughter’s college major to my thoughts on living in San Francisco, our stop-and-go conversation touched on many personal matters. But it wasn’t until I started showing him one of my favorite Twitter accounts that he paused the conversation and introduced himself. “If I’m going to see your Twitter,” he said, “I suppose I should know your name.”
This name-as-detail moment happens pretty frequently if you’re someone who talks to strangers. I heard it happen in my SuperShuttle after Thanksgiving, too. Two men talked the entire ride, discussing everything from their retirement plans to how they feed their dogs. But it wasn’t until we reached one man’s destination that they actually introduced themselves. Their names were like an after-thought, a formality added to top off a long, meandering conversation. They exchanged names, they shook hands, they parted ways.
Names give structure to our interactions, and context when we reference one another. But compared to all the other things that can describe us, do our names truly matter? Most of us don’t pick our own names, and they’re assigned to us far before we show strong personality traits. So what role do names really play? My seatmate didn’t need to know my name to talk to me. We’d already established a conversational rhythm, far before he introduced himself. It may feel a bit odd to talk to someone over the course of 6 hours without ever knowing their name. But that’s only because we’re so used to names as context. Our conversation’s tone or content didn’t change once we exchanged names. All that’s different is that I can now think back to “Jerry” from my NY trip, rather than “the guy who told me his opinions on the way technology changes human interaction.”
A few months ago I went to an event where each guest was assigned a nickname at the door. Mine became “Peppermint Patty” because the hostess asked me to name an ice cream flavor. For the rest of the night, I was Peppermint Patty to anyone I met. My friends and I spent most the night with someone whose nametag said “Lego.” As the night went on, I kept forgetting it wasn’t his real name. Did it matter? Would it have made any difference if I’d known his real name? I don’t think it would have changed a thing about how we interacted. Fake names are only meaningful when people use them as an intentional safety net around people they distrust.
Here’s a fun social experiment for you. Stop letting your name be the first thing you share about yourself. I know it’s polite, it’s social convention, and all that. And I certainly don’t recommend trying this at a professional networking event. But the next time you go out in a social situation, resist the urge to start the conversation with your name, and see how the talking flows. See how long it takes for someone to feel like they have to share their name. And notice if the conversation changes at all once you’ve formalized your relationship. After all, what’s in a name?