Does it ever feel a bit intrusive to have strangers know your name, to have "ROB! Tropical Green tea!" shouted loudly enough to make people look up from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Much as I like interacting with the public, I was a little taken aback. What would happen if I had said "Max" or "Emile," or "Marcel?" How would that work? Beyond the challenge of remembering one's extra, situationally specific name (requiring just that extra neural synapse that might be beyond my capacity), there is a minor "ethical" problem.
Is it o.k. to use an inauthentic name?
|[b] Authenticity RF|
Several accounts of the practice (it is too young to have a history yet, or even a Wikipedia entry) attribute it to the problem baristas have with certain names. For example, Sima Guang, had he been living today, might just have them write "Sam." Charlemagne might go with "Chuck," and Michel de Montaigne might say "Monty." This is the explanation given by several online sites—make it easier for yourself and your barista with a "straightforward" name.
If only that were the whole story. There is much more, though. I first read an article a few years ago (I wish I could track it down now, but cannot) that had a very different take on coffee names, and inability to write them down had little to do with it. The article stressed that many people who use coffee names don't want to use their "real" (authentic) names. They see it as a kind of violation of privacy, not unlike my impression of the experience earlier this evening. As I read the article back then, I was fairly convinced after a paragraph that this was the key element: people seek relative "privacy" through the use of coffee names. It makes a little bit of sense, and I thought that was the end of it.
But no. There was more.
You see, it turns out that more than a few people really like the idea of having a coffee name, indeed a coffee personality, as it were. Now we approach a dimension of the subject that gets us deeply into the realm of social psychology. One person described the excitement of hearing her coffee name called out, and discussed the ways in which she sees herself almost as though she were another person when using the name. It is a little like shedding one's skin and cloaking oneself in otherness—all with an altered name.
|[c] Chock RF|
A few minutes down the road, a frantic couple came running up behind them. "Why did you ask our child's name?" they wailed. "You're a soulstealer!" Once a sorcerer knew a victim's name, who could say what incantations he could work upon it? Chü-ch'eng explained that they had come only to beg. "What's 'soulstealing' about saying a few words to your child because he could read?" Agitated villagers quickly crowded around. Some had learned that these "soulstealers" were coming around from far places, casting spells on children so that they sickened and died. "These two are bad eggs for sure!" The mob, angrier than ever, tied them up and searched them roughly...
George Herbert Mead
The Self (1934)
When a self does appear it always involves an experience of another; there could not be an experience of a self simply by itself. The plant or lower animal reacts to its environment, but there is no experience of self. When a self does appear in experience it appears over against the other, and we have been delineating the condition under which this other does appear in the experience of the human animal, namely in the presence of that sort of stimulation in the co-operative activity which arouses in the individual himself the same response it arouses in the other. When the response of the other becomes an essential part in the experience or conduct of the individual; when taking the attitude of the other becomes an essential part in his behavior—then the individual appears in his own experience as a self; and until this happens he does not appear as a self.
 Philip Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 11.
George Herbert Mead, Mind Self, & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, edited by Charles W. Morris (Chicago: University Press, 1934), 195.
Kuhn, Philip. Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, edited by Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.