If the subject of this essay strikes you as somewhat self-indulgent, just remember whose site it is, and that part of my explicit intention in creating this blog was to provide a place for Montaignish self-reflections. Who am I? Nobody in particular, but there are certain human universals that can be explored by looking closely at anybody, and I’m by far the person with whom I have the most experience.
Like anyone involved in public-facing endeavours, I’ve thought a little bit about how I present myself to different audiences in different contexts. The most obvious way of doing this is by using different forms of my name.
As far as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her duly appointed agents are concerned, my name is Thomas Neil Maitland Ingram. I was never called Thomas as a child, and to this day the name strikes me as ludicrously formal. I was mostly called Tommy through childhood, and now my friends and family use Tom and Tommy more or less interchangably.
As I enter the workforce in my unique way, this becomes a little more complicated. For me, Tommy is wimpy and contemptible, Tom is solid but informal, and Thomas is positively patrician. So it’s Tom for most professional purposes, which of course confuses people when they see my Facebook profile or speak to my friends.
The other complication is that when someone asks what they should call me, I can’t give them any honest answer. I find it extremely difficult to care what other people call me—other people are the ones who use my name, not me, so I consider it their property to do with as they please. In fact, I’ve always felt a strange alienation from my name. I don’t refer to myself by name in my head (which I’m sure is fairly normal). I feel a curiously uncanny feeling when people call me by name—I know they mean me, but it seems strange that they would use that particular sequence of syllables to refer to me.
One unusual consequence is that I almost never call people by name when I’m talking to them, and only refer to them by name in a third-person sense when it’s unavoidable. This is in direct violation of one of Dale Carnegie’s dicta and, I think, contributes to something strange I’ve noticed in recent years: people frequently think that I secretly hate them when they first meet me, and only learn later that this is not the case. Names have a strange emotional charge, and it seems uncouth to me to invoke this charge with someone who is not intimately familiar to you.
This is one especially noticeable manifestation of an “intimacy gap” between me and most people. Unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise, I’m entirely comfortable not talking to or knowing much about the people around me, and I take a few years to feel properly comfortable around them. It looks to me—though of course looks in these matters can be extremely deceiving—as if most people don’t need more than a few weeks, and many don’t even need an hour. Perhaps one of the fastest ways to close this gap would be to make a deliberate habit of learning and using people’s names.