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What’s in a name?

Illustration: Thayer Sindelar· The Sentry

Spelling your name at Starbucks is a venti deal

few years ago, Starbucks introduced (pardon the pun) using customers’ names on their drinks in order to both personalize the experience and reduce confusion on which drink belonged to which customer. The hope was that the baristas would learn the guests’ names and, by extension, get to know the guests who then would feel welcomed and part of a community. Probably due to Starbucks’ habit of hiring fallible humans, customers have complained since the practice started about having their names misspelled, mispronounced, and generally gotten wrong. Or, for the particularly privacy-minded, for having to give their name at all.

While it might not seem like a big deal, it’s instinctively annoying to humans when the thing that uniquely identifies each individual as, well, themselves, gets mangled or mixed up with someone else.

While one could certainly tell the barista not to put a name on their drink, that’s much more uncomfortable (and takes longer) than just going along with it like most do. So what to do? Have one’s name misspelled yet again? Begin by spelling it rather than giving the whole name and waiting to see if the barista asks how it’s spelled rather than just guessing? 

If the customer’s name is pronounced the same but is an unusual spelling of a common American name, the barista might not know that, and many names have variations to begin with that are well known, like Kathryn/Catherine. And don’t even mention names from another culture. The point is that that name is their name, no matter how difficult or outside someone else’s experience it may be. 

Sometimes it is easier to just give the barista another name altogether. While that might sound odd, is it that much different than the many regulars who are known by their nicknames instead of their given or legal names? If the intent of using names is to make the customer feel seen and also be able to pick out their drink from someone else’s, and the customer—for whatever reason of their own—chooses a name that might not be on their birth certificate, why not?

Additionally, baristas began wearing nametags because customers thought that it was odd that the customers’ names were being used and the baristas’ were not. If baristas could choose which name they wrote on their name tags or had embroidered on their aprons (within reason, of course), why is it any different from letting a customer choose how their name is written on their cups?

Names given by other people don’t always feel like they fit, whether it’s because one’s parents were feeling highbrow and chose a ridiculous name, or perhaps because the name denotes a kind of person that doesn’t fit what one wants to be. And because names are our unique identifiers, when there’s a choice of whom to present ourselves as, why not take it? Even if it’s just to have it spelled properly.

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