All in a name…

In traditional American society, a person’s name is a powerful connection to them. Pay attention to names. Remember them. Call someone by name often in conversation or correspondence.

Yet this is not a universal concept: there are many cultures in which the regular use of a person’s name would not be effective – and some in which it would be offensive. In many locales, you are not called by your name but by your familial designation (for example, Auntie or Elder Brother). That said, in the growing diversity of American society, it has been my general experience that a genuine recognition and use of a person’s name is an effective way to lessen barriers and grow true dialogue.

My colleague Erin Vargo, who’s worked in community outreach for years (and runs a great food blog, by the way), and I will often come back to this concept of establishing a connection with others. Erin talks about remembering the birthday of those in her network or the names of their pets. You know, I’d heard that deposed Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was phenomenal with names – that he’d meet you once and the next time remember you and something about you. Newsweek quotes State Senator Mike Jacobs, "If you've got an animal, he'll know your dog's name and cat's name and the next time he sees you he'll ask how your cat is." I loved author Harry Beckwith’s emphasis on names in his Selling the Invisible.

So then the irony, within this great “melting pot” we hear this story: a Texas state lawmaker during a committee session called for Asian-Americans to adopt names that will be “easier for Americans to deal with.” Representative Betty Brown suggestion came among testimony from a representative from the Organization of Chinese Americans about transliteration of Asian names onto polling records and the confusion caused therein. A few days later Rep Brown did apologize, recognizing the “diversity of Texas.” Interestingly she had once been honored with the Defender of the American Dream Award. (Now, the name of this award reminds me of the melting pot / American Dream, but its criteria focus on less regulation for businesses and less government. The award is given by Americans for Prosperity.)
My beloved, whose given name is of Tibetan origin, Karma, had been given a new name when he began elementary school in a predominantly Hindu Nepali society. In a time of racism and otherness, his parents felt it would be easier for him to “blend in” with a more common name.

Surely, surely, many of our societies have grown to some point of diversity and dialogue that we can accept and speak each others’ names. Isn’t that the smallest step? There are so many deeper conversations we can broach – surely we shouldn’t trip over names.


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