Starbucks Names Encourage Conformity

Eman Abdurezak, Arts & Entertainment Editor

It seems you’re back in the same position. You’ve finally reached the front of the line at Starbucks, and after ordering your usual iced venti white mocha with two pumps of cinnamon dolce, six pumps of vanilla, and exactly two squeezes of caramel drizzle on whipped cream, the barista is looking at you blankly with a finger hovering over the electronic cash register.

You suddenly become hyperaware of the sounds around you, the spraying of espresso machines, the whirring of a blender, and pieces of nearby conversation. Quick, they’ve asked you for your name, and it’s time to make that split second decision. You scope out the conditions, and think to yourself today might be the day. But as you raise your voice to speak, the name that comes out isn’t your own. “John,” you say with uncertainty, as if you’re trying to convince yourself that that is in fact, your name.

Many people with a foreign sounding name might have a “Star- bucks name”—a sort of alter ego to avoid the awkwardness of a confused Starbucks employee,  the back and forth as you try to spell it out or enunciate slowly, often to what feels like the brink of shouting.

Its premise entails using a so-called “generic name” (few letters, might belong to a picture book character) at checkout to ensure maximum correctness of pronunciation and spelling every time. Starbucks names allow the common transaction to be carried out smoothly and swiftly—a win-win for both barista and coffee lover.

It is hard not to notice that this extra step taken for the purpose of ease and convenience has roots in a larger societal issue.

Though, it’s not limited to Starbucks encounters. For many Americans with “unique” or more unfamiliar names, stepping into a store means assuming the identity of Bob, Sam, or Katie. It is hard not to notice that this extra step taken for the purpose of ease and convenience has roots in a larger societal issue.

Even outside of a transactional setting, people with names reflecting their own culture, especially immigrants, feel the need to succumb to the pressure of altering their names for the purpose of others. In an article from Psychology Today, Dr. Riddhi Sandil, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University, discusses the discomfort she felt toward her name during school. “I often was met with laughs from teachers, pauses before saying my name, and comments such as ‘do you have a nickname? … They impacted my sense of belonging within my community and caused me to feel both shame and anger about my South Asian heritage. As early as four years old, my job was to make my white American teachers feel more comfortable, rather than them making time and effort to learn to pronounce my name correctly.”

Why does “unusual” mean foreigner? Why does “simple” or “generic” actually mean traditionally white, and therefore “American”? The correlation between names and humanization in American identity is an important one, and a factor that causes some to change their names in the interest of being treated fairly in academic or workplace settings.

We need to redefine cultural normality and change these environments to places where people can share these valuable aspects of their identity freely and comfortably.

This piece also appears in our February 2022 print edition.