Erin’s post from yesterday addressed an issue with names and the personal associations that go with them. Her “correspondent” made two errors that will quickly alienate a potential ally. First, he had some individual contact with her and promptly forgot about it. He then addressed someone, whom he had forgotten and was thus a stranger, in a form that should be reserved for communicating with people we actually know. I am not as active on social media as Erin is, so I have not been confronted with this problem on-line, but I could not help but think of the similarities to phone solicitations. Now that all the details of our lives are available to marketers everywhere, it is not uncommon for me to answer the phone and hear, “Marilyn! How are you? How is business going?” and more questions or statements that indicate that I am being contacted by an acquaintance. As I rack my brain trying to identify the voice (and use the nasty side of my cranium to rant about young people not being taught manners and that I was brought up to always identify myself immediately when calling someone), I start to realize that this is not someone I know, but an overly familiar telemarketer who thinks that she will create warm feelings on my part by pretending to know me, not just whatever profile information she has in front of her. By the time I ask, “Who is this?” I usually have it figured out.
The use of our names in a way that implies acquaintance, if not friendship, is irritating when we realize that we are just entries on a list to be contacted. I would almost prefer “To whom it may concern” as a form of address; if it doesn’t concern me, you haven’t attempted to create a bond for your own purposes, and you still stand on neutral ground with me. Those telemarketers who start with “May I speak to the owner?” or “May I speak to the person who handles advertising?” still get the brush-off, but in a much more polite way than the faux-friendly ones.
I wonder if the new author Erin mentions is aware of the opportunity he missed. Just as the presumptuousness of using someone’s name to address them with a familiarity that does not exist is off-putting, the knowledge that someone with whom we have had a brief communication has paid enough attention to learn who we are can be appealing. In Erin’s example, the author could have taken a few minutes to find out who she is. After all, he conversed with her on Twitter, and thus had enough information to lead him to her professional status. For him to ask who she was after sending what appeared to be a personal invitation indicates that he didn’t care enough to find out with whom he was conversing earlier. Brief encounters such as these can leave us with warm fuzzy feelings or “he’s a jerk” feelings, and these first feelings are bound to color any future interactions.
Our names are so intimately bound up with our identities that the use or misuse of them can generate strong emotions. I have never had a nickname, don’t want one, and get quite resentful when someone (generally a person I don’t know well) calls me “Mar,” the most common attempt to shorten what is not a terribly long name. Some “Deborahs” like “Deb” or “Debbie”; others abhor the shortened form. A little effort to know someone’s preference (like listening to what they call themselves) can go a long way. Remembering a person’s name can go an even longer way. I have many regular customers and they are pleased to be called by name, even if I haven’t seen them for several months. I am fortunate to have a pretty good memory for names, but I have learned a trick that works: forget the mnemonics, the association of the name with some far-fetched image, just pay attention. I really believe that the main reason we forget names is because our attention is elsewhere when we are introduced. If for just one minute the new acquaintance, or customer, is the focus of all your attention, the name will stick. And if it doesn’t, honesty is a good tool. Asking again and admitting you were distracted still indicates you care enough to get the name right. Just as a few minutes of on-line searching would have saved Erin’s correspondent from alienating a potential ally (who took the time to find information about him), a few minutes of attention to a new acquaintance will reap future benefits when they realize they have become an individual and not a face in the crowd.
It’s harder in the on-line world to create real connection, especially if one has thousands of “friends” or “followers.” Still, it seems that if one is going to engage in any one-on-one dialogue, it would be worth the few minutes it takes to identify the other party. Not only would it help avoid confusion and misunderstandings, but it could create a sense of real caring about the individual. And don’t we all want to feel that we are special?