“Skinny dry Triplefrappacrappercccinolattechiato for Julian”
What’s in a name? My ridiculous and highly needy coffee order for starters. This should be ridiculed in public. That I have managed to get myself to a three dimension coffee order indicates a pestilence of the spirit at work.
Skinny. (I wrestle with Cholesterol) Extra Shot. (I need more help in the morning these days) Super dry (I don’t like milk).
The source of this madness unsurprisingly rests in the heart of galloping consumption and endless retail growth. (And the ease with which my fragile ego can be manipulated!)
Quite simply, our ‘rapacious’ corporate friends have seized on a good thing – the socially levelling model of respecting individual particularity that lies at the heart of the American Dream – and turned it into First Name My Order strategy for Growth.
The long journey of the customer service model that began with starving penniless immigrants arriving on the Island under the frozen gaze of Liberty, nameless or without papers, ends with the coffee order leaving my lips in public in central London suffixed or prefixed with my first name.
The Dream has taken those immigrants from scratching scraps in the poor streets of Dublin, Palermo, Krakow and Juarez to applying a ‘let me tell you exactly how I want this sub sandwich’ selection system loudly directed with almost papal absolutism.
This is not exclusively the domain of 3rd and 4th generation immigrants in the US. We’re all at it.
“6 inch teriyaki sub with extra green peppers” says Daniel Sturridge (the British footballer) because he likes things ‘his way’.
With the help of our emollient, predatory NBBFs (New Best Brand Friends) now everyone can, as Frankie (that’s Sinatra, not Goes To Hollywood) sang in those golden years, “do it my way”.
If you want a triple-tofu-Chilli-cheese-string-dog in marmalade marinade, white sauce and whipped cream in a floury bap, you’ll find that it is your absolute human right.
You are not a faceless, nameless, choice-less drone any more.
You are majestic, singular, powerful: the text of you illuminated by every infinitesimal nuance of particularity you can cook up in one simple order.
The American Dream has delivered us a service culture that promises, hand on heart, that never ever again will you be told what to eat without some recourse to asserting your ‘identity’. And not just in ingredient or format choice.
The game raiser was in the appropriation and use of every customer’s first name ‘with a slightly creepy familiarity’ as part of the service process.
Direct Mail of the utter drivel variety was suddenly ‘ok’ as it sported our name on it, printed in ‘handwritten’ font.
Our mail pages wi-fi logins and every other device interface we have uses our own name to welcome us back. The existential labyrinth presented by the cautious expression Welcome back Julian (Not you?) should not be underestimated.
Not me? What do you mean ‘Not me?’ You know it’s me. I have given you secret-squirrel passwords, a saliva sample, three hairs off my head, some of the earth from under my first den in the garden of my youth and the DNA strand of my first pet. Surely you should know whether it’s me?
And to expand this interrogation, how would I know if ‘I’ was not me? What other clues are you giving me? Nope nothing. Zip. Nix. Nada. Niente.
But for these NBBFs of mine it seems that as long as my name’s there, everything is OK. Which I suppose it is; Isn’t it?
Our first name is now used freely by everyone from call-centre staff, the man at the garage who I’ve never met before, strangers in Health Clubs and the shifting sands of receptionists at various dental clinics.
In fact the only person who seems reticent to use my first name in the world these days is me.
I am becoming rather protective of it. And getting a little ticked off that it gets demanded from me so often and used back at me so easily.
When I make my ridiculous coffee order and hear my name tabbed on the end I feel as if I have been quietly mugged.
I am starting to see where the sublime logic of the nom de plume, nom de guerre and alter ego.
‘My name is… my name is… my name is… Slim Shady’ sang Eminem…AKA Marshall Mathers. Smart move. At least he can amuse himself with three names to draw down on at the coffee shop. I don’t see Batman with this problem. Though seeing him turn up at a rather self-conscious Gotham Coffee shop, ordering a Chai Latte and being asked ‘What’s your name?’ would help me to begin to navigate the age of absurdity I feel we have now entered. Batman? Or Bruce. You decide.
Perhaps it’s not just me. Perhaps we are all quietly plotting for when our ‘Anakin’ will turn. When the burgeoning malevolence and negative feelings towards people we don’t know from Adam using our first name willy-nilly, will prompt our ‘Darth’ to answer the question ‘Welcome Back Anakin (Not You?) with a sharp swipe of a light sabre and a dash of keyboard-melting force.
The liberal use of your first name by every brand and business you even glance at is actually doing the opposite of its original intention. At the outset all of this was to empower the individual – to give the customer a sense of being more than just a consuming machine who was expected to turn up at the supermarket in their 343 instalments-station wagon, fill their trolley with 1/3rd Unilever 1/3rd P&G and with the last third a shared cornucopia of Nestle, Coca Cola, Kellogg’s and Kraft consumables.
But as the consumption grew and the giants who purveyed the products that fuelled that consumtion also grew, the people felt further and further away from the things that secured them – the old touchstones of shops, bars and diners where people knew your name.
As the shopping malls got bigger and the diners got franchised. As the towns splintered and the cities and ‘burbs bloated, people stopped knowing anyone’s name. They barely looked them in the face.
The odd island of camaraderie appeared – between till 3 and till 4 and that nice man at the newsagents. But mostly accelerating faceless consumption ruled.
Cheers, the Boston bar based sit com was a master-class in reassurance television. And its theme tune summed up the age. We like places that know our name. It stops everything feeling so bleak on a wet Wednesday in mid February having just returned from said superMall.
It took a little time to realize that the more faceless the sale the more important it was to make someone feel like they were really important. But we all got there.
For a while it was delightful. The truly entrepreneurial people who did actually give a wholesale shit about the customer as a person turned the others’ heads – creating a new culture that aimed to actually understand and communicate with people like they mattered in the transaction.
But the infinite-growth monsters of the old world simply saw that you could screw a few bucks more per person out of a life time value model by using the person’s first name and by being their new best friend
Soon enough, mass personalization, a rather fetching term for how to industrialise degrees of knowing and intimacy, poured into the world: into every shop, call centre, mobile interface, airport lounge, and restaurant.
Once you have spotted the potency of Names and the wielding of them, a world of endless opportunity reveals itself.
There is also the dark art of Reverse First Naming in the entertainment & leisure sector. Like Reverse logistics in the parcel delivery services, it’s a stroke of mirror loving genius.
If you have been in a franchise restaurant in the last 12 months and had someone tell you ‘hey, my names Siobhan and I’m your waitress for this evening’ – you have just been Reverse First Named. Instead of using your own name against you, in this particular instance they use their own. Genius.
Reverse First Naming is a new brutal and unflinching practice to wreak havoc in the unsuspecting consumer.
It is, first and foremost a method for the suppression of free speech – especially if the speech was going to sound something like the following: ‘this place stinks, the service is crap, this burger resembles something that’s been kicked around a barber’s shop floor and there’s chewing gum stuck to my tights’.
It is a well-documented fact that this first name first mover advantage can be life saving.
In potential situations of violence against the person by strangers, people are trained to ‘humanize’ themselves to the aggressor – telling them your first name, or nick name, tell them about your children, your wife waiting at home – to create a connection that triggers sentiment, guilt, shame and conscience – and ultimately responsibility for hurting not a faceless stranger, a piece of collateral damage, but someone ‘known’ to you.
So suddenly you are responsible for Siobhan’s well-being and job satisfaction. Whether she gets a good tip – or a pay raise or not. So the chances are you’ll be a little more considerate and a little less caustic.
But we cannot simply point fingers in this. We were all so wrapped up in looking at and hearing our name in lights, furiously opening letters inviting our handwritten first name self to the opening of another envelope and buying our own name in an email address, that we missed the moment when marketing Insincerity stole our name.
Now it feels as if one has walked through a time space continuum to a hometown we didn’t know we had, populated by people who’ve never met us before but who feel really really friendly like they’ve known us for years. Our own brand built Truman Show.
And there right there in the middle of it all, is our first name in lights surrounded by bands cheerleaders and fireworks.
So right now, anonymity is the real rock n roll. Now that we’ve illuminated the text of that first name by embroidering it with face-book postings, riddled with tweets and pins. Now is the time to get punk and take our first name back.
The first rule of data confidentiality? Take back the little big data! Starting with your name.
Surname is the new Sex Pistols. Ample use of Mr, Mrs or Ms is where the real anarchy lies.
But right up there at the top? Anonymity.
The Man with No Name, an America Colonies Ronin with a Latinate rasp, walked through the Spaghetti Western Trilogy to the chirp of penny whistle, a guitar twang and the crack of a whip utterly devoid of a name.
When standing at the counter of certain Coffee Shops I am tempted to relive The Man With No Name’s short conversation with the barman when asked ‘I didn’t catch your name…’ ‘I didn’t give it’.
Hearing my name repeatedly chiming out of the person delivering it up to me from behind the cawing frothing barista station with faux hoaky bonhomie is getting a little ‘old’.
To understand quite how powerful the imperative to ‘personalise’ the service proposition is, when you are next asked for your name, try saying No.
Along with the right to order ridiculous coffee combinations, to not give your name is a basic human right.
Try it. You may find your No might just be met with a gaze not dissimilar to that of a rather tired Customs Official when confronted with bag full of hand-guns cocaine and Marmite.
This ‘local global’ serving culture that speaks to me like a regular at a corner coffee shop, liberally uses my name to fulfill a number of functions: as a clearing house dispatch mechanism; as an metronome of service excellence (listen to all these good people we’re delivering coffee to); as a ‘personal touch’ and as a piece of service sophistry. And to render human and real the faceless corporate swaggerdaccio of the global brand providing it.
Sometimes just to lighten this moment, I would love people to be confronted with their gamer names perhaps or their tumblr tags just to see how ‘real’ we want all of these separate personas to be to us.
“Dry frappacinno for #kongworrier”
“Triple chai latte with sprinkles for #foxytankbuttgirl”
Our first names are taken in vain by more than just ourselves and the brands we allow to speak to us through them.
Voice activated dialing on smart phones is a source of infinite street theatre. Watching for example someone saying the name James repeatedly into a phone standing on a street corner shouldn’t be funny. What’s funny is when the phone responds by telling the person she’s calling Mary.
I don’t want Mary. I want James.
CALLER: “Call James”
SMART PHONE: “Calling Mary”
You see the person wonder, ‘what am I doing wrong’? They move the phone to different angles askance of their mouth.
CALLER: “James” “Call James”
SMART PHONE: “Calling Mary”.
This then descends into a dulcet opera of different pronunciations. Maybe they’re just saying it wrong. Perhaps in the last week they developed a speech impediment. A cold sore might be ‘smudging’ the sound file. Or perhaps they were drunk when they made the sound tag and sober now. Whatever.
If only James knew how often his name was being called out in a public place.
And therein lies out perfect existential storm.
At a coffee shop counter: having ordered your identity-asserting ‘eat my individuality World’ coffee with 3 complex dimensions, just at the moment when you are asking your smart phone to ‘Call James’, the lady asks your name.
YOU: “Call James”
YOU: “No Julian”
SERVER: “Not James”
SMART PHONE: “Calling Mary”
YOU: (To smartphone) “No, James”
SERVER: “James?… not Julian?”
DISTANT BARISTA: “GrandeToffeechinolatte with whipped cream for #saucyleatherboy
SMART PHONE: “Calling #saucyleatherboy”
So the next time you find yourself being asked your name, pause, take a breath, consider the consequences; and then answer. You might be surprised by what comes out of your mouth.