Someone once asked: Can you tell me who you are without using your name? No, not really. Because there is a tremendous amount of social information locked up in a name – and in the way we use our names and the names of others. For instance, one person can be referred to as Mrs Dr Trevor Smith, Mrs MM Smith, Marguerite Mary Smith or Margie Smith. What are the pictures that come up with each of these name formats?
Who did you say you are?
I have this fascination with names. Have you noticed how we have moved from title + initials + surname (Mrs MM Smith) to only name called by + surname (Margie Smith)? We do this even in our contact lists. When we search for people on Facebook we use the name + surname pattern, no initials or title. As if to say that identity or individuality has become more important than heritage or social standing.
In the past, when a woman introduced herself as “Mrs Dr Trevor Smith” she was actually referring to herself in terms of her husband, like in “I am the wife of a very important man, hence you should treat me with respect as I have a high social standing”. Yet, this is also part of the legacy of a patriarchal system denying women not only equal rights but even personhood.
If this person referred to herself as “Margie Smith” the underlying message would say: “I am my own person. My own identity and my family are equally important to me.” In certain situations she could even use “Marguerite” or “Marguerite Mary” instead of “Margie” to add gravitas.
When organisations have to provide a list of their directors, managers or members, they can do this in various formats. I like it when they use the following pattern: Mrs MM (Margie) Smith. It says this is a professional person, but there’s also a real human being behind the name.
Addressing a specific person by name
Picture this scene: A group of colleagues, clients or friends are talking. One person wants to share new knowledge with the group, but addresses only one person and says: “Peter, have you heard about the latest developments at XYZ?” More likely than not, Peter will be the boss or the one who will find this piece of information the most newsworthy. Why do we single out one specific hearer?
In cases such as these, we associate with one specific person in a group to make ourselves look good. What we’re actually saying to the specific hear is this: “Please take note of me. I’m good at what I do. I know things.” What we’re saying to the rest of the group is this: “Take note – I’m associating myself with the main man here.” We can do this consciously or subconsciously. Sometimes we do this non-verbally simply by making eye contact only with our chosen hearer.
Note on the side: Who is the leader of the group in this case? It’s not the person showcasing his or her know-how. It’s the person everyone is talking to. The person with the highest status is not necessarily the alpha male or alpha female. It can even be the sexiest or richest person in the group.