Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Name Shame



I had an odd experience the other day. So that nobody will get into trouble, let's just say I went to a restaurant that will be nameless next to an ocean that will be nameless. When I arrived, the parking guy came over to my car and welcomed me. His name tag read, "Bob," and below that, "Mississippi." I knew immediately that something was amiss. I said, "You don't sound like you're from Mississippi." He replied that he wasn't. He was actually a "local," but he was new to the job. They hadn't gotten him his real nametag yet. I started to walk into the restaurant when I turned to him and said, "Wait a minute. You're probably not even Bob." He replied, "No, I'm Keith." In other words, it was so important to the restaurant management that their employees have nametags that they'd rather have them wear phony ones than none at all. Imagine what that did to my faith in my fellow man and woman. Imagine what that did to my appetite.


Why am I making such a big deal about this? Partially, it's because I tend to obsess about things. But it also just seemed so wrong. Here was a symbol of friendliness, and it wasn't even real. We get betrayed so often in life that you'd think we could at least take a break from deception at a fish place.


Nametags are everywhere these days. You go to a ball game, and the ushers have nametags. You go to get new tires, and the mechanics have nametags. The only place people don't wear name tags is the only place I wish they did: at social events where I get introduced to people and then forget their names two seconds later.


Marketing studies must have determined that customers would like to know the names of people who serve them. I don't know why. It's not as if I'm ever going to write any of them a letter. Businesses must believe that this is a way to show how friendly they are: "You can trust us. This is my name." For a long time, I placed it in the same category as those waiters and waitresses who say things like, "Hi, I'm Celeste, and I'll be your waitress tonight." In other words, I found it slightly annoying.


But I got used to it. There are even times when I think it's helpful. Let's say the person waiting on you in the shoe store has his back turned for a moment. Instead of waiting for him to turn around, you can say, "Excuse me, Brent. Do these look okay?" Or after you get home from shopping and you call the store to double check a price, you can say, "But that's what Francine quoted me." So, I tried to accept this informality and friendliness. What was so bad about these people telling me their names? I convinced myself that it was kind of nice, a departure from people having to call each other "Sir" or "Ma'am."


More recently, the nametag has evolved to often include the name of the place where the wearer is from – just like the infamous "Bob from Mississippi." I might be buying light bulbs from someone whose tag says she's Kirsten from Switzerland or socks from Wolfgang of Austria. I knew it was probably a marketing ploy to try to make me think that people came from all over the world just to work in the store that I was visiting. Yet, I often fell for it. I'd ask them about their homeland or hometown. It added an interesting element to the retail experience. Until... The Incident at The Restaurant.


Now I know that both the names and places that are on so many chests that I've looked at might be just as phony as some of those chests.


And let's face it: "Bob from Mississippi" can't possibly be an isolated case. I wonder how many other people that we deal with every day aren't really who they claim to be. The only silver lining in all this is that it's a good thing our political leaders don't wear nametags. Otherwise, we might not be able to trust them.



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