January 17, 2014

The Importance of Knowing Names

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Years ago, I took an evening class with about a dozen other students. It was a seminar style class, meaning we sat around a large conference table and discussed the material with the professor. On the last day of class, we each had to give a presentation. We were instructed to state and spell our name for the instructor before we began—she had not bothered learning our names that semester.

Now maybe she just had a hard time putting faces and names together. But as a student, it felt like she didn’t care about her students or the class enough to take the time to learn a few names. We had even learned each other’s names during that time; why couldn’t she?

This is part of the reason I make sure to try and learn every students name when I teach. Admittedly, learning names can be hard in an auditorium with a hundred students. But even if I can’t get everyone’s name right, students have told me that they appreciate that I at least try.

Knowing someone’s name seems like a simple act, perhaps even a trivial one. But this everyday practice provides a good basic lesson in social psychology.

In basic power imbalances—as often occur between professors and students—one person knows the other’s name, but the person in the higher status position may not know the name of the other. In addition to professors in large lectures, high-ranking officials in private or public organizations might not know the names of the people who work for them. We could argue, as I do in my work on celebrity, that fame can be defined as being known by a large number of people who the famous person does not know in return. In the classroom, knowing students’ names is one way to remove a layer of status hierarchies. Some professors even insist on being called by their first names as well.

Knowing who people are also bolsters informal social control; when we are known and not anonymous, we are more likely to behave in ways that reflect positively on our identities. If students know that I know who they are, they may (but certainly not always) make a point of coming to class more regularly than they would if they blended in with the crowd.

In large educational institutions, it can be easy for students to feel lost and alienated from the educational process. If representatives of the institution don’t see them as individuals who are there to learn, it is no surprise that students would come to view themselves as separate from the educational process. Knowing someone’s name in a large institution means that they are literally not just a number, and it signals that who they are is central to the learning process.

I was recently surprised in a meeting with one of our university’s deans when he knew my name. Not only did it make me feel valued, but I was impressed by his ability to know several faculty member’s names even though his assistant handles all of his correspondence. On the few occasions when I have met politicians, including a now-deceased vice presidential candidate, I have noticed how they make a point of knowing people’s names and using them during conversation. The VP candidate shook my hand and made sustained eye contact with me, and said, “Nice to meet you, Karen” a moment later. And he wasn’t even running for office any more.

By contrast, we have all probably felt the sting of someone who fails to acknowledge us or can’t remember our name when we remember theirs. I have been in a meeting with one colleague several times, but when I pass her on campus she looks straight ahead as if she doesn’t know me, even after I have said hello. This could be the result of shyness or being lost in thought, but it does not feel good when we are not recognized.

For some people who experience prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” a neurological condition that makes it nearly impossible to recognize faces, the results can be socially devastating. As this 60 Minutesepisode details, people with face blindness feel an acute sense of loneliness. If someone can’t recognize others, building interpersonal relationships can be extremely difficult. Some in this report can’t even identify the faces of their children, and must use other sensory cues (like sound and smell) to identify them.

Knowing who others are, and others knowing who we are, is the primary building block of social life. How else does knowing—or not knowing names—teach us about social interaction?

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