Remember the song, “You Can Call Me Al,” by Paul Simon? Very catchy tune, and quirky lyrics.
“If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al”
Well, there is a backstory to these lyrics. The names “Al” and “Betty” in the song came from an actual incident in Paul Simon’s life. He was attending a party with his then-wife Peggy Harper. A French composer and conductor named Pierre Boulez also attended the party. Monsieur Boulez mistakenly referred to Paul as “Al” and to Peggy as “Betty.” This helped inspire the song.
Wait For It
I have had people forget my name, call me by the wrong name, and talk to me multiple times over periods of time without ever bothering to learn my name. These situations do not frustrate me as much as when I forget someone’s name, or worse, call them (confidently) by the wrong name.
True story. I have taken my cars to the same dealership for service for ten years. The service department has multiple standing desks to the right of the big service bay doors at which various service managers are stationed. I have worked with Brett, Tony, Leah, and several others, but have felt the strongest connection to Brian. This man lost 85 pounds in 2019! He talks about his kids, vacations, and is remarkably knowledgeable about the model cars we own.
For many years I have spoken his name and addressed him with enthusiasm even if I am being served by Tony, Brett, or others.
No joke. Recently I was standing at his desk after we had discussed the car’s issues, when Brian said, “My name is Jason.” Like that. Matter of fact.
I could not have been more apologetic.
He said that for many years, several times a year, the service managers have listened for me to trumpet his name! They see me pulling in and say, “Wait for it.”
I should probably be embarrassed, but in actuality, I wonder if it is my mistake to own. He does not wear a name badge, and there is no name plate on his desk. In all these instances did he ever think to straighten me out? I am totally at fault, but I also feel like I was trying to use his name to show respect.
Names and Brain Matter
Brain, not “Brian.” Whew.
According to the journal Brain Research (dedicated to publishing articles within the vastly expanding field of Neuroscience), something chemical and electrical happens in our brains when we hear our own names.
“There are several regions in the left hemisphere that show greater activation to one’s own name, including middle frontal cortex, middle and superior temporal cortex, and cuneus. These findings provide evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others.”1
When we hear our name, we turn towards the speaker. Our name is a trigger for our attention.
We experience cognitive dissonance when someone uses our name to call someone else. It takes a moment to realize they are not talking to us. In my family, I am David, our son is David, my wife’s brother is David, and one of our daughters married a David. All of us turn when someone says, “David.”
At birth we are each given a name. That name is like a string that others tug to gain our attention. This began way back when our parents wanted us not to touch something, to come to them, to stop doing something, or to look in their direction for important information. When our name is spoken, not only does our brain register that someone wants our attention, but it also informs us that someone is focusing their attention on us.
Question: Are you skilled at using other people’s names when you are indeed making them the focus of your attention?
The Power of Using Another Person’s Name
When we say another person’s name in conversation it has several possible effects on them:
- When you use their name, they know you know them.
- Your tone when you say their name indicates how well you may know them.
- Your facial expression when you speak other people’s names tells them what you think of them.
- The frequency with which you use their name indicates how important they are in the context of a conversation.
These communication elements combine to create the true power of using someone’s name.
When we say another person’s name it is always in the context of making a statement, asking a question, or talking about the person to others. The use of another person’s name is usually followed by words describing feelings like happiness, concern, empathy, disappointment, or amazement. When they hear their name, they will also hear these emotions. They will feel either important and valued, or something negative.
Saying other people’s names gives you the power to shape the way people think you view them.
When someone looks back at a conversation that they had with you, your use of their name will cause them to remember how you made them feel.
Proper Use of Names
Like all the words you use in conversation, names matter. How you use them, how often, and in what context, matters.
For your consideration:
- Say a person’s name when you sense you need to bring them back into the conversation. Just their name attracts attention and reminds them that they are the subject of your attention.
- Say a person’s name to appear more competent in their eyes. They will hear your statements with personalized connotation.
- Say a person’s name when you want to instill strong feelings in them during the interaction. Using a person’s name makes them feel important and validated.
- Say a person’s name to establish trust between you. Their name on your tongue means you care and helps build an emotional connection with them.
- Say a person’s name when you are going to pay them a compliment, give specific encouragement, or acknowledge something important that they said. A person’s name is part of who they are, and if you are going to speak about them intending to build them up, they will hear it with greater receptivity.
Sometimes, the only word necessary to convey everything we want to say to another person is simply their name. When someone we are with is overcome by emotion, acting irrationally, refusing responsibility, or simply at wits end, just saying their name can be calming, reassuring, and be all the confrontation that is needed.
The Gospel of John presents the first encounter of the risen Jesus with another person. She happened to be a woman who followed him for all the years of his ministry. She had seen him die. She had come to apply essential oils for burial.
“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’” (John 20:16)
Saying a person’s name says, “I see you. I am here.”
All people want to be treated as human beings, and not as prospects, projects, statistics, and certainly not objects. The simplest way to communicate to someone that they matter to you is to use their name. There is a danger, however, in using a person’s name in order to manipulate them. They will know if that is the intent. Misusing another person’s name will only diminish your own.
A proper, respectful use of another person’s name can elevate the value they receive in a conversation. Always end every conversation by using the other person’s name. They will leave the encounter feeling it was intimate and friendly.
Just make sure you are using the correct name. Remember “Brian?” (Actually, Jason).
Maybe he will write a song entitled, “You Can Call Me Brian.”