The Power of Using A Name

The Power of Using A Name

My friend Sarah and I were walking down the street near the hospital when she suddenly stopped and turned around.

She walked back, to the feet of a homeless man sitting on the ground. She handed him her leftovers from lunch. Gave a big smile. And then, she shook his hand.

They chatted for about three full minutes.

When she came back, I remarked, “Well that was a long conversation!”

“Sorry, I was asking him his name,” she said as if it were obvious.

“His name?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “I always ask the homeless to tell me their name. You never think about it - but they sit there day in and day out, sometimes getting money, sometimes not... but no one treats them like a human being and actually asks them their name."

She paused before continuing, "My mom taught me that. Once, when I was little, she asked an older veteran what his name was. He actually started crying. I've done the same ever since."

I stared at her blankly. I was astonished, and dare I say, incredibly humbled. After all, when I see someone homeless on the side of the street, I am the kind of person who doesn’t even make eye contact.

Let alone asks them to tell me their first name.

A name is a powerful thing.

As Dale Carnegie, world-famous lecturer and writer, once said:

“A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Researchers have confirmed that this is true. In one study, researchers found that remembering and using someone's name in conversation makes them more likely to make a purchase from you later. And another group of researchers showed that our name will even distort our perception of visual space, by causing us to allocate attentional resources to areas where our name appears in print.

Our name clearly matters to us a lot.

The last few days, as I was drafting this post, I’ve noticed something odd. I rarely will use a patient name during an encounter, even when I first introduce myself. I also rarely use names when talking to nurses or other medical staff. Even when talking to friends, or close acquaintances of mine, I find I don't often use someone's first name in conversation.

Maybe I’ve been doing something wrong. In fact, I’m confident I have.

It’s hard for me to say that, so I’ll say it again (for myself, not you). I’ve been doing something wrong.

I’ve been doing something wrong.

I think it’s probably been a way for me to maintain emotional distance. I may be empathetic, a writer, a future clinician, but I enjoy the perception of space between the world that exists in my head and the world of reality. It’s a weak point of mine, something I’ve tried hard to bridge over time. Maybe it's a function of how I grew up. Let's just say I have enjoyed the added space - it shields me.

So here’s a homework assignment for you and me this week:

  1. Pay attention to when and where you refer to people by name. Even more importantly, pay attention to when and where you DON’T.
  2. Next time you see someone homeless, give them a few dollars (just this once, even if you’re opposed for completely logical reasons). Also, ask them what their name is.
  3. Attempt to refer to as many people at home and at work by their first name (where appropriate) as possible. If you don’t know their names, ask.

And please, let me know what you find in the comments below. I’ll be sure to update you as I do this personal work myself.

Internal medicine resident at NYU in New York City with an interest in heme / oncology (cancer care).