I bit my tongue, wanting to say hello, not feeling completely certain that I knew her name, despite my efforts to remember them all. We hadn't been introduced. I'd tried to read her name tag countless times as she passed, without trying to seem like I was staring at her chest, and not her face.
I decided to embarrass myself.
"Tell me how to pronounce it again?" I asked.
She stopped, and covered her name tag with her hand. "How do you think it's pronounced?" She was baiting me, teasing me a little. She didn't think I knew her name at all.
"V___," I guessed. Hoping I was right.
She looked both pleased and astonished. "Close enough," she congratulated me, nodding, "close enough." The accent was in the wrong place, but the name was right. Thank goodness.
I could be imagining things, but I could swear that she's smiled at me more often, and regularly calls me by my name now, which she knew without any tag required.
If there was one thing I learned from working at a large public university, it was the importance of knowing people's names.
In part, it started as a kind of parlor trick, maybe: my ability to match names and faces, to conjure last names when given first names, and vice versa. It was fabulous at orientation, when we knew they were worrying about coming to a place where no one would ever know them, where they'd get lost. But I quickly realized that if I knew students' names, they'd be more likely to trust me when things weren't going well. Naming them, early on, without their prompting, meant that they mattered to me. They were willing to be vulnerable, having established that small intimacy.
But naming is complicated, isn't it? Because it's also possible to use someone's name to make them feel like we have power. I bristle when people address me by my name in the middle of a conversation. Naming me when we're already talking to each other in a dyad actually makes me feel like the other person knows me less well, not better. Naming me several times in the course of our conversation makes me think they're either quite forgetful or trying to force intimacy on me that I probably don't want. You're not going to sell me anything by using my name.
This complication always makes me feel a little uncomfortable in situations in which I know someone's name, but they don't know mine, particularly when the people in question are the ones who wear their names embroidered on their uniforms. It's like built-in power for us. We can be anonymous, but they have to have an identity. Or, in some ways, their identity could just as well be anonymity: the nametag allows us to call them by name, and then to forget, because there is no need to remember. All we need to do is refer to the nametag. As if the remembering isn't important.
The master of our college prides himself on remembering students' names. He is unusual in that sense: few people in his position make an effort to remember every student. And they do fall more easily into conversation with him in the dining hall because he's broken the ice, because there's no need for introductions. Or if there is, it's a hasty re-introduction. But watching him, it's become clear to me that more than ever, so many of them need to know that you remember them not just because they are a matching face and name. They quickly see past the parlor trick. They yearn for something else. They need recognition; they need relationship. They want the I-Thou of Martin Buber. And as good as we are at naming, unlike "friending," that takes time. The name is really just the beginning.