The Lost Art of Name-Calling

by Gary Gilles

Your parents probably told you not to call people names. I think that’s unfortunate. We need more name-callers. It’s not only a courageous act, but an intimate one as well. I’m not suggesting we sling derogatory, demeaning and racist names at each other. That’s not only cruel, but shows great disrespect for the person and their feelings. No, the kind of names I want to see used more are the ones given at birth. Names like Don, Kim, Susan, Andy, Martha, Sam or whatever name they prefer to be called. This is name-calling at its best.

But why spend time on something so obvious, you might say? Well, in my observations, healthy name-calling is not as common as you might think. It doesn’t simply involve blurting out someone’s first name. That is common. What is not common is the thoughtful use of names in greetings and conversations that have the ability to enhance a relationship. Some people know how to do this instinctively, others pretend, and still others seem lost or unaware that names are important.

What’s in a name? More than you might think. Names:

  • Carry emotion
  • Convey worth and value
  • Build trust in relationships   

Names carry emotion

You may not realize it, but names carry potent emotion. When we feel tender toward another person, we easily find that person’s name rolling off our tongue. But when we feel angry or distant, we are prone to substitute their real name with a hurtful one such as “stupid,” or a host of others. Sometimes we communicate our irritation by referring to the person in generic terms.

Here’s an example from a mother and daughter I saw in counseling. The mother was complaining to me about her teenage daughter’s behaviors that ranged from general disrespect to staying out past curfew. As she spoke, I noticed that she never used her daughter’s name when referring to her. Instead the mother continually referred to the daughter as “she” and used a blaming tone of voice. At one point I stopped the mother and asked if she would talk to her daughter about these concerns instead of me. She initially resisted, saying it would “do no good.” I asked her to try, and follow these guidelines: start by addressing your daughter by name, keep eye contact with her, and focus on how you feel instead of blaming or finding fault with her daughter. She reluctantly turned to face her daughter, said her name, and before she could say more, burst into tears. That began a tender conversation between them that led each to a new appreciation for the other.

In this situation, it was the daughter’s name that broke through the icy anger of the mother. The name was full of loving emotion for this mother. That’s why she couldn’t use it when she was angry. Ignoring the daughter and referring to her as “she” was just an indirect way to communicate her displeasure. When she finally uttered her name, the name she had carefully chosen for her at birth and nurtured for 16 years, it broke through the wall that had been created between them.

Names convey worth and value

Names have meaning. They communicate value and worth. A name distinguishes one person from the rest and brings out the unique and valuable characteristics of that particular person. One newspaper recognized this inherent value following the tragedy of September 11. The paper committed to running one profile each day of every victim until all the encapsulated life stories have been told. Every single name has a story that needs telling. The name is simply the entry point into that story. In a similar way, this is the reason long lists of names are inscribed on war memorials, read in graduation ceremonies, mentioned at award banquets, or other occasions of honor. Names cut to the core of who we are and what we stand for in life. When our names are respected and honored, it dignifies us.

It is because names carry so much value that demeaning a person’s name can be so devastating. Just as worth is communicated by thoughtfully using a name, that same worth can also be greatly diminished by acts of cruelty, retaliation or ignorance.

By looking for opportunities to constructively use a person’s name in a greeting or conversation, you touch them in a personal way that validates their worth. This personal touch humanizes people in an increasingly dehumanizing culture. And many people will sense the difference.

A woman that I’ve been seeing in counseling for some time recently asked me this question: “Why do you use my name every time you see me?” I asked her to explain. She said that every time I greet her I use her first name.

“Does this bother you?” I asked.

“No, I like it. I feel warmth from you when you call me by my name. Not many people do that, even in my family.”

Names build trust

Imagine that you were put in charge of a priceless item from someone’s estate. Your job was to treat this heirloom as if it were your own. If, when the owner wanted it back, they found it well taken care of, they would, no doubt, be pleased you had treated them and their property with respect. This very well might result in the owner giving you more items of greater value to hold because you were found to be trustworthy with the heirloom.

This parable tries to show that a name is the valuable item that belongs to another person. If you treat it with respect by using it carefully but deliberately, it gradually builds trust between you and that person. It shows that you understand its value to them. And it invites them to share more of themselves over time. This is the ground for a meaningful relationship to take root.

Breaking ground

Start with the people who are most important to you. Look for opportunities to regularly use their first name in greetings or conversation. Use it thoughtfully, and combine eye contact. Avoid overusing their name, which speaks of insincerity.

Greetings are a good place to begin. Try addressing a number of people by using their names and see how it feels different from generic greetings. “Good morning, Mary.” “Hello Tim.” “How are you, Dan?” Say it with energy, like you mean it. Pay attention to their response and whether it warms future interactions. Then, work names into normal conversations when it seems appropriate. Be attentive to how the relational walls slowly come down and trust begins to build. And especially notice how it feels when someone doesn’t use your name on a regular basis.

Names are the front door to a storehouse of relational riches. Use them carefully, thoughtfully and deliberately and the door will open for you.

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