From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Displays of Authenticity (10)—Coffee Names

I spent about thirty minutes in a coffee line in Madison, Wisconsin yesterday evening. Let's just say that I had plenty of time to think...and observe. "What's your name?" "Rob." And onto the cup it goes, along with "Rob's" order. As I stand, waiting while a tray of half a dozen Pumpkin Mochachino FrazzledazzleWonders get blended, whipped, beaten, and poured, I hear other customers asked their names. "Suzy," "Pedro," Tim," and "Heather" have their names dutifully noted on recyclable cardboard. It is a veritable Ellis Island of caffeinated naming, and it got me to thinking.

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
What are the implications of this little corner of dishonesty on the moral playing field? It is convenient and one step short of anonymous. Most of us would regard it as harmless, too. This is precisely why the concept and social practice of coffee names has taken root in several corners of the urban world (this is less likely to be a "rural" problem in, say, the little diner at the corner of County Road G and State Highway 57, where they know you like a second cousin once-removed).

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
With this, we move into brave new worlds of human behavior—Sybil holding a double latté. How should we think about these matters? To conclude today's piece, I have chosen two brief readings. One deals with names in a "don't touch" sort of way during a "soulstealing" scare in China in 1768. The other is from the work of the American sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). For now, though, think about the dimensions of coffee naming—convenience, privacy, and, perhaps, exploration.

Philip Kuhn
Soulstealers (1990)
Making their way along a village street, Chü-ch'eng and Ching-hsin saw two boys aged eleven or twelve, playing in front of a house. One saw Chü-ch'eng's name inscribed on his bronze begging bowl and, to the monk's surprise, recited the ideographs aloud. "So, Mr. 'Official'—you can read!" chuckled the delighted monk. "You study a few more years and you'll certainly get an official post. What's your name? After you've become an official, don't forget me," he added, hoping to please the youngster so he would fetch his parents from the house to give alms. The boys paid no attention. Seeing no adults around, the monks gave up and resumed their progress.

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...[1]

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.[2]
[1] Philip Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 11.
[2]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.


  1. I have always wanted to give the name Kunigunda when ordering coffee, which is the name I have been told I would have had if I wasn't a twin. Someday maybe I will use it.

  2. I like this idea very much, Kathy.