I recently viewed a social media post with a picture of a small group of makers gathered in a shop, making and learning (or more precisely, learning and making). I noticed that each of the women, about six total, had on a large, white adhesive name tag. I couldn’t read the names in the photo, but my first thought was “there are six of them, one works at the shop…why are they wearing name tags?’ Also, this was a six hour class. I know some people have trouble with remembering names, but if I spend six hours with a small group of people, I am more likely to remember your name (at least in the moment) if there AREN’T name tags on the person. More importantly, I am more likely to get to know the person and find ways to make them memorable without being encumbered mentally by their name. Maybe this is just my problem, but this is also just my blog, so I am going to “unpack” this here.
What’s in a name? My name is not WHO I am. You know the drill: you arrive somewhere that is a collection of strangers (and oddly, usually strangers with something in common…a professional conference, a class, a parent meeting at school) and one of the first things you are expected to do is grab a name tag and apply it to your person. Then people wander the venue, talking to one another, sometimes glancing at each other’s name tag hoping to force some sort of familiarity right away. This doesn’t sit well with me. Speaking of sitting…the idea of name tags when there is very little social time and everyone is seated theatre style in a room MAKES NO SENSE. I’ve been known to write cheeky things on my name tag: His Wife, His Mother, Her Daughter, Forced To Attend… Most people find these names funny and they immediately identify me as “that funny woman” or “that odd woman who kept her name a secret”. Another thing that annoys me is when one is wearing a name tag and the reader mispronounces the wearer’s name. I’ve also been known to write my name out phonetically on name tags.
Getting to know you. (And do I need to know you, really? I may never see you again.) If I am not likely to see you ever again, do we really need to pretend to learn one another’s names? I think not. Usually, like in the case of the makers, if I have been in a class with a group of people, that meets more than once, I am likely to learn the names of my classmates and then when the class is over just as quickly forget them. We have limited space in our memories for information that doesn’t need to stay there. I empty that space for the myriad other things I’m trying not to forget on any given day. Having a stranger call me by my name with familiarity unsettles me too. And most of the time unless someone needs to specifically get my attention or call me across a room, it is unlikely that they are using my name at all. We all sit there for hours and never utter anyone’s name even though it is boldly pasted to their chest. Whose idea was it, way back when, to label people at meetings? I bet you it wasn’t anyone who felt themselves known or important. Just as an example, if I go to a fancy dinner party, at a catering hall, lets say, the guests are likely to be wearing name tags and the hosts are not. Another example, on The Price is Right, all of the contestants wear name tags, but the hosts, the models, the announcer/emcee does not. Lastly. awards shows…none of those folks wear name tags (and that would REALLY help me! I am becoming more unfamiliar and off trend, lol…THEY need those big, obnoxious TPIR name tags so I know whom to “Google” later. Ok, now that I think about it more, I guess my TV screen does give them name tags by way of projecting the name of said person on the screen. However, that is at the discretion of someone off screen…the director?…and that doesn’t help me identify all of the other people, say, at the Oscars who are not superstars or known to me.) I digress. I’d prefer people sharing a time and place together take the time to engage and try to be present in the moment and get to know the person they are talking to in a genuine way.
How do I know you’re telling the truth? So your name tag says Robert Smith. So what? Is that really your name? Does it matter? If I should run into you again at Trader Joe’s you know what I am likely to remember? That I’ve seen you before and I don’t know where nor what your name is. So then what will I do? If so inclined, I may say “Hi. You seem familiar to me. Have we met somewhere before?” *Note: this is unlikely to happen because I don’t want Robert to now think I am coming on to him with this lame intro. I’m just going to leave wondering how I know Robert. I’ll remember later that evening while brushing my teeth…a time when many things are revealed to me. Or I won’t remember ever…meh. Then, if I call the dude “Robert?” in the Trader Joe’s and he doesn’t answer me or then has to explain that he doesn’t use his real name at gatherings…where do I go with that? Sure…we presume that people are putting their real names on name tags, but why? I could see in this era of protecting one’s identity and the importance of women guarding their personal safety, why one would NOT use their full, legal, given name on a name tag in a public venue. Yes…I am that person. I don’t buy in on 99.9% of conspiracy theories out there, but when it comes to distrust of people and skepticism, I’m here for it. So I certainly think some people lie on their name tags, just like people openly admit to giving false names to the barista at Starbucks. Oh…if I have to leave my name with a host/ess at a restaurant where I know they will announce it out loud, I also give a fake name for that too (you won’t go yelling out my government name in public…nope). And except for the fact that we now live in a world where hotel stays have to be confirmed with a credit card and often another form of ID, I’d give a fake name for that too…the more extravagant and exotic sounding the better. (This is still my runaway plan. Use cash and a name far removed from your real one.) Book authors, actors, artist of various types often use a “nom de plume” or pseudonym and we don’t bat an eye. Why is this acceptable for those folks and not the rest of us? Is it because we expect them to be lying to us…presenting us with a fiction in general? Would be we angered to find out the name embroidered on our mechanic’s coveralls or our plumbers shirt, was not in fact, their actual name? (They have good reason to want to protect their identity…or stand by their name, like Oscar Mayer…look up the history on that one.)
Another reason to dislike name tags: they are wasteful and unattractive. After we’re finished with a name tag it goes in the trash. We don’t need to be reminded of our own names. Office suppliers sch as Avery have made advances with the adhesive on the sticker type name badges so that they are less harmful to clothing (in most cases). I still remember being pissed that an adhesive name tag marred a silk blend suit that I wore to a meeting. Then there are the pin back style name tags. These are really hated by women mostly, because these put holes in apparel and sometimes, depending on the fabric, the hole remains. I’ve sometimes put these on my purse or even in my pocket to save fabric. And depending on the weight of the fabric, sometimes a name tag can hang or droop in a way that is just unflattering on all levels. And don’t get me started on the fact that the standard placement for a name tag is on the breast. Chest is what most would say, but let’s face it…on a woman, a name tag says “look here at my bosom and learn my name”. My solution: arm badges or put the tag so high on the person…at the shoulder, that we are not forcing eyes to cast upon a woman’s bosom (not because I have a problem with being looked at or looking at a woman’s breasts, but we shouldn’t have to, so that everyone is comfortable and no one is made to feel awkward). Lastly there are the magnetic name badges. These are the most expensive and usually the least disposable. When these show up at a gathering it says a lot: care about protecting the wearer’s garment, lack of consideration for attendees with pacemakers, the cost of the event, the likelihood that these name tags have to be turned in at the end of the event… How many name tags does the average professional wear and dispose of over the course of a career? I can only vouch for educators…I have worn SO many, of all types. In some schools new tags are ordered at the start of each school year. Sometimes this is because the color or some other facet of the tag changes from year to year, sometimes not. I’ve worked in schools where one could decline a new tag if it wasn’t necessary. I got married and had to get new tags because of a name change. That annoyed me a little (the new tags, not the name change…I was cool with the latter). Only once did I ever work somewhere where we recycled name tag sleeves (because why not, they are absurdly expensive) but the decider in that situation was also ridiculed for being “cheap” (they were, but that’s neither here nor there).
Do name tags serve a purpose? Of course they do. I’m not blind to the usefulness of name tags, I just abhor them. I don’t think they are necessary in most situations. We’ve come to rely on them when we don’t really need a name tag to help us get to know one another. Social media is a good example of this. I have meaningful conversations with brilliant and life enriching people on an almost daily basis. Many of whom are not using their real names. One of my “friends” died quiet suddenly. It wasn’t until her friends irl started posting their sorrow, that I learned of her real name. It didn’t make me feel any kinda way. It was part of what made her amazingly quirky. More importantly, it was her spirit that I loved, not her name. Shakespeare was right and so was Kunta Kinte. And neither of them wore name tags.