Name Dropping Can Be a Drag: When & Why We Do It
In an age of narcissism and one-upmanship, name dropping might be getting worse. It may also be because we are all so visible and many crave being noticed. With name dropping, people toss out names of people, colleges, designers, restaurants, clubs, addresses, cities and friends—like the first pitch at a baseball game.
But there’s a difference. With the first pitch, the ball gets thrown and that’s it. Most name droppers tend to go on and on with this type of conversational narcissism. Many think the name dropper is trying to impress. But that’s not always the case, and we’d like to cut some of them some slack and be a tad less judgmental…sometimes.
It’s customary to encounter the name dropper at a any type of gathering for business or social occasions. This spills over into any correspondence we might have as well. And now it’s rampant on social media as people take photos with this star or that singer to look like they are besties when, in reality, the person you know often grabbed them for a selfie. And who knows what name dropping got the star to agree to pose.
Here’s a familiar scenario: A woman we shall call Mary meets Byron at a party. She leans against the wall holding her plate of finger foods (crafted by some great caterer, which the hostess may drop into a conversation if such stuff matters to them). Byron makes his way over to Mary after checking her out from across the room. He loves her look and long-highlighted tresses. “Hi, how do you do?” Byron says. She admires his blue and white checked shirt. He seems nice…and then, the coup de grace--he starts dropping names faster than she can say, “Nice to meet you.”
Mary moves on and introduces herself to a man named Richard with a British accent who announces that he’s a tennis player, claims to know Serena Williams and throws in how many times he’s been to Wimbledon. And, he adds, that’s where he met Harry and Megan, leaving off the Duke and Duchess of Sussex since they’re on such intimate terms. Mary doesn’t really care and figures he probably sat near them and didn’t really meet the pair. How does she extricate herself from this person? “I need a drink,” she announces and heads to the kitchen to pour a glass of Pinot Noir. She finds an empty chair where she remains for the rest of the night watching Byron work the room.
Why do people name drop? Is it just something human beings do when they’re getting to know one another? Is it to impress? Or, it simply may be a way to establish an instant connection…hey, we both know so and so or have been to the same great destinations.
This is all well and good until it becomes obnoxious… when the name dropper does so with every sentence or every other one and exaggerates or even blatantly lies. In a subtle way…or not so subtle way…it can be a tactic to show status. And it’s especially annoying when it’s the first thing that comes up in any conversation. “Hi. How do you do. Where did you go to college? I went to Wharton and know Donald Trump. He was in my class.” For all you know, he passed him in the hall once or sat with him in a huge classroom. But then again, he just might know him—and even well, and be quite proud of the connection.
These days name dropping seems to have become universal—yet, it probably always was. Julius probably dropped Cleopatra’s name at a few Roman baths, and Marie Antoinette most likely let it slip or deliberately told too many peasants she was a queen and married to a king named Louis. Nowadays, it really shouldn’t be a problem unless it reaches narcissistic proportions. Every conversation becomes about who someone knows, what fancy schools were attended, where they live, have traveled—Portugal and South Africa seem to be on every go-to list these days, where they’ve eaten (Noma in Copenhagen and Central in Peru), shop—Prada, of course, and which clubs they belong to. It shows provenance, much like a piece of antique furniture that has a long-storied history.
What’s key for the name dropper is that it’s a way to show their importance and hear what others have to say. It lets them size others up and figure out what they might be worth, whom they associate with, where they hang out. In other words, it’s a way to provide listeners with quick codes for who they may be but in reality, it’s only about the surface stuff—not character or real intellectual or emotional smarts. It’s only part of the story.
As a result, some prefer to go in the opposite direction. In the book, Save Me the Plums, by author Ruth Reichl, former food critic at The New York Times newspaper and former editor-in-chief of now shuttered Gourmet magazine, Reichl gives a great example of the anti-name dropper. She’s interviewing a new editor and he says, “Just since college, I grew up in Iowa….When he finishes, she asks, “What college?” And he hesitates, looking so abashed that she was completely unprepared for the answer “Harvard.” He sounded embarrassed, she writes, so she glanced at him with some surprise, and explained that every other Harvard person she had ever met managed to drop the name in the first five minutes.
A similar game is played with some folks with their addresses. A neighbor of Barbara’s told her that their other home was in Tribeca, signifying chic. Barbara wishes the neighbor had first said Manhattan or New York City and then if Barbara had inquired more the neighbor would have added the neighborhood. Barbara’s gut reaction was “how snobby.” But the less judgmental take would have been, maybe, the neighbor wanted to cut to the chase and be more direct. Barbara knows she didn’t know the person well enough to know the real reason, and she shouldn’t have jumped to her original conclusion.
In Barbara’s adopted St. Louis, which is Margaret’s hometown, people can’t wait to pry it out of folks what high school they went to since it’s a way to peg someone quickly and offer a certain status of smarts, money, legacy in some cases. But again, maybe it’s just a shortcut to fast information in an age of hurry-up in everything.
Then, there are other cases where it’s much more annoying. After her divorce, Barbara dated a well-known lawyer a handful of times who mentioned at their first meet-and-drink several of his well-known former clients—certainly, a no-no professionally. She found it interesting for the first and second dates to hear about his cases, but by the third and certainly the fourth, it became quite irritating. She got his point: his firm attracted well-known rich clients, he earned big bucks, and most of all, loved talking about himself!
One person writing in for Barbara’s 50th high-school reunion booklet mentioned that he had gone to a certain well-known college. Everybody else avoided citing names so many years later, and that same person also dropped into the profile that one child was living in the same affluent community where they all grew up. Several were surprised that such information would be shared and seemed to matter so many years later.
The bottom line, we think, is that a person lives their life with clarity, purpose and honesty, and not focus on names of people, places, schools and so on. Yet, we also think it’s important to be tolerant and understand that sometimes we drop names for other reasons, so it’s important not to rush to judgment as we and most folks sometimes do. Put what they’re saying in perspective or understand their reason for doing so.
Barbara has been taken to task several times that she recalls for mentioning the name of her college. One time a man, she thought a friend, called her out on it in a rude way. If he had inquired, she would have explained how she loved the school because it helps young women find or hone their self-esteem, provides an excellent education with dedicated faculty and helps students and alum forge deep lasting bonds. She doesn’t just talk the talk, if asked, but walks it as an active volunteer. However, now because of that man’s shaming and in front of others, she always tries to resist mentioning the college by name.
And isn’t that a shame that we can’t share some names at certain times—a favorite restaurant experience, a wonderful cruise line we tried, a fabulous super Tuscan wine, gourmet caterer, even city where we have a home? Of course, name dropping can be done in a nonverbal way, too, whether through college clothing that trumpets “This is my alma mater” or by carrying purses like a Prada with the name written out or in shorthand such as a big MK for Michael Kors.
Where do we draw the line, and must we now parse all our words so carefully that we’re left with fewer names at all and far less color?
We say know your audience. Maybe, don’t rush to drop names unless you know the person and they know you. You can use it as an ice breaker but don’t make it code for, I’m fancy, rich or smart. Use it once and then stop. And if you are cornered by someone doing it excessively, know that you have multiple options. You can give them a look that says this stuff really doesn’t matter to me and try to change the topic. However, they may be so caught up in their own conversation, that they won’t get your point and will keep going on and on. Or, you can ignore the pile-up of names and let them enjoy themselves. Feel some compassion and even drop in some names yourself. Touché! Or, you can do like Mary did, smile stupidly and wait for the first chance to escape.
We’d love to know what you think?