It’s not uncommon for one of my conversations to start like this:
“Hey Ben! I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you doing, Ben?”
As you can see, I enjoy using people’s first names excessively when I talk to them. I never really understood why I did it, just that it felt natural and polite. But, as I’ve been thinking more about it recently, but Dale Carnegie believed that a person’s name is the sweetest sound they can hear. Think about the last time someone said your name, and they were actually talking to someone else in the vicinity. Usually, you feel surprised. When our parents were very proud, or very angry at us, they used our names. When someone wants our individual attention, they say our names. When someone wants to make you feel special, they say your name.
It isn’t wrong to say that using someone’s name is a form of flattery. To some degree, it is. But to say that’s all it is underestimates its meaning and power.
Recently, I have been reading “The Kingkiller Chronicle,” a fantasy series by Patrick Rothfuss following an adventurer-musician named Kvothe. The first book of the series is called “The Name of the Wind,” in which names are incredibly powerful and important: there is an entire art called “naming” where people can control objects by saying secret names. Although it’s just a fantasy fiction book, Rothfuss harps on a theme that using people’s names are powerful. The main character, Kvothe, is a famously high-profile and accomplished man but changes his name to Kote to lose some of his power and influence and maintain a lower profile as an innkeeper. When people call him Kote, he internalizes and forgets about his deeds as an adventurer. When people call him Kvothe, the stories of the three books come back to him.
This theme of names invoking power is something I’ve subconsciously realized in my interactions with people: not only does using someone’s name make them more engaged in the conversation, but using a name also makes you more invested in that person. You are focusing your attention on them. The teachers that were most invested and paid the most attention to you — they were often the ones that used your name the most.
I used to believe that I was a pretty awkward person, more of an introvert that didn’t gain energy from being around people. But the truth is no one is a complete introvert or extrovert — everyone is somewhere in the middle, ranging different places in different contexts. I started to realize how fulfilling being among others, to me, is often also associated with how often I used their names, and conversely how often they used mine. When I would label myself as more “awkward,” I wouldn’t use names as often, but now I think differently.
Think about the most charismatic people you know of — people who can do anything and you will still like and follow them at the end of the day. Charisma is not what you do or say, but how you do it. Often, when someone we think of as “charismatic” enters a room of strangers, the first thing they’ll do is ask everyone what their names are. Every time they say someone’s name, and they say it often in repetition.
Every time you use someone’s name, they feel important. They feel like they have a little more connection with you. They listen to what you have to say. I realize, too, that when my bosses or superiors tell me to do something, I’m significantly more invested into that thing when they ask “Ryan, can you do this for me?” rather than just when they ask “can you do this?”
Is using someone’s name, in some way, manipulation? Up to this point, it could be thought of that way. But I push back and reject that notion — because in using someone’s name, you’re forced to focus and think about them, too, and spend at least a couple more seconds caring, or at least thinking about that person than you would have if you didn’t. And for a person you didn’t know that well before, that’s one more step towards not only remembering, but internalizing their name.
Using someone’s name is powerful, to me, because it makes me learn more about them and think more about them. The power of using someone’s name, to me, is the power of gaining more empathy, and compassion, and that’s why I will continue to do so (excessively), and push others to do the same.