Tag Archives: human interaction

The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.

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Agony by Eye Contact

I have always been told that I have an eye contact problem.  When most people hear this, they assume that I mean how I have trouble maintaining eye contact.  However, my apparent problem is the exact opposite; I’m told that I make too much eye contact with people while speaking with them.

It is one complaint that has followed me all throughout my childhood (and subsequent adult years), by people alleging that I am not showing them proper respect because I insist on “staring” at them as we talk.  Yet, despite numerous attempts to remedy this supposed faux pas of mine, I have never really been able to figure out what the socially acceptable amount of eye contact is supposed to be.  Hence, what results is me trying to simultaneously give someone my complete attention, while worrying that I have given her/him too much attention, and made her/him feel uncomfortable because of it.

The reason I have always been inclined to make direct eye contact with whomever I happen to be speaking to at the moment, is my desire to hear and understand every word that is being spoken to me by said individual.  I make the assumption that if you find it worthwhile to approach me in conversation about a topic, you want me to actually listen to what you have to say, and not nod my head and shift my eyes aimlessly, looking for a distraction to avoid looking at your eyes.

The strangest part is that when I’m confronted about my intense eye contact habit, and told that I’m being rude to the person whose words I’m trying to hear, my sincere request to get some constructive feedback on the matter is always met with scorn.  “You should already know why it’s obviously wrong,” is the answer I usually get (which is obviously asinine since I obviously don’t know).  The second most common answer is that it makes the person I’m speaking to uncomfortable, which though reasonable, still doesn’t validate the notion that my behavior is wrong.

Breaking the routine of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder will definitely make the person afflicted with OCD uncomfortable, but doing so is a necessary step in getting the person to break away from her/his compulsion (assuming the person wants to break from it).  In that same regard, how can I be sure that it is not society’s aversion to eye contact that is the problem here?

I know from my experience teaching in a classroom that students who actually look at me as I’m lecturing tend to retain more information, than those who never lift their heads from the paper in front of them.  This is because communication is not strictly verbal, so being told to listen with just my ears and never my eyes comes across as a strange demand to me, since I know that I will register more of what you’re saying if I look at you while we’re conversing.  Do you not want me to grasp and thoroughly contemplate everything you have to say?

And, yes, I’m aware that there are people who have different kinds of social anxieties and communicative disorders, who are physically and psychologically incapable of making eye contact with others.  But I have a hard time believing that the vast majority of people I happen to come across in casually conversation fall into this category.  Also, as someone who suffers from stage fright, I can totally understand the desire to not have people gawk at you incessantly while I’m giving a talk.  However, the issue I’m referring to here is limited strictly to a one-on-one conversation, usually started by someone approaching me to discuss a topic s/he feels is important enough to speak to me about.  The idea that it is impolite to maintain eye contact with someone who has chosen to speak with me, baffles me to no end, and honestly makes me wonder about the state of our self-worth as a people, when we are so easily unnerved and intimidated by anyone who dares to closely observe and pay attention to what we have to say.

Despite having said all this, I do constantly try to accommodate to people’s desires and limit the amount eye contact I give to a person during conversation, but I really wish someone would give me the guidelines to how much is too much, or not enough, since I obviously am not able to figure it out on my own.

Dear Noble Assholes,

Assholes don’t bother me.  Assholes who pride themselves on being assholes (and advertise their “asshole-ishness” publicly) don’t bother me, either.  However, there is a certain type of asshole that exists that does tend to irk me just a bit.  I would call this type the noble asshole.

Noble, because this sort of assholes has actually convinced themselves that being an asshole is synonymous with having an honest dialogue, thereby framing their need to be vindictive and rude towards people into a public service for the greater good of humanity.  Moreover, the noble assholes believe that being assholes just means that they are braver than you, because (unlike you) they aren’t scared to speak plainly.  Ultimately, I think it’s this sense of self-aggrandizement that grinds my gears about the noble asshole.

Because, tell me honestly, what great feat of bravery are accomplished by harping on about something as personal as someone’s physical flaws?  Do we honestly think that ugly people don’t know that they’re ugly?  That short people don’t know that they’re short?  So what great service is accomplished by calling for people to have to be confronted with these sort of shortcomings in every conversation they have, be they relevant to the conversation or not?

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I have no problem with anyone saying whatever the hell they want.  I really, really could not care less at how offensive something is (be it something said, published, or put on display), because within a free society the right to be offensive needs to be as protected as the right to be offended is.  And claiming offense cannot, and should never, serve as a tool to silence someone simply because you feel insulted by what s/he said or did.  What I am saying is that, in that same spirit, if you are being insulting don’t further insult our collective intelligence by pretending that you are doing anything else.

No, you’re not “just being honest”.  You’re going several steps beyond that, on account that anyone past the age of puberty, who isn’t on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, ought to have enough common sense (not to mention human decency) to know the difference between speaking honestly, and being an opinionated dick on matters where your opinion was never asked to begin with.

The most annoying part is that, while I went out of my way here to accommodate the noble asshole’s asshole-ish ways by openly stating her/his right to be as shamelessly insulting as s/he sees fit, this same type of asshole will always (and I do mean, always) cry foul the moment someone responds accordingly to the insults s/he so freely spouted out.  It’s a warped sense of logic, in which the noble assholes demand the right to insult you, but deny you the right to acknowledge the reality that they have in fact just insulted you.

And these are the self-proclaimed “truth-tellers” of our age?  The noble souls who can’t even grasp the basic physics of how exerting an action will result in an equal reaction.

Noble?  Truth-tellers?  There is a more fitting description for people who lack the ability to speak with others with the basic tone of civility, who lack the ability to have the foresight or maturity to understand the consequences or impact their conduct can have on others; we call such people children.  And if you behave like child, throw temper-tantrums like a child, and have the emotional maturity of a child, then I will presume that you wish for me to speak to you like a child.  Just like a spoiled, undisciplined child, who has no filter and spouts out the first thing that pops into her/his underdeveloped mind.

And make no mistake, if you are among the self-proclaimed noble assholes, I am not doing anything noble by writing all of this.  I am insulting you, and you should be insulted but it.