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What is this odd new trend of "personalization" that has gained such popularity in the food-services industry? I'm talking about the request for my name whenever I place an order at a coffee shop or fast-food outlet. Now, instead of being known as a "double-tall-extra-hot-cappuccino," I'm known to all of the other bleary-eyed customers in line by my first name.
My name – LouAnn – is a pain. It's not hard, really, but it's not all that common north of, say, Tennessee. I'm quite accustomed to people getting it wrong and usually I'm perfectly fine with anything ending in "Ann." But when I provide my name – reluctantly – over the din of cheery jazz, small talk and shuffling feet, I am generally greeted with a perplexed stare and the inevitable question: "How do you spell that?"
I usually end up spelling it twice, though I avoid going into the elaborate details that the "A" is capital, that there is no hyphen and neither is there an "e" at the end. I don't know why they care, but they do, and they give me quite a forlorn and troubled face when I say "close enough," as if I'm giving up on them and their prowess for customer satisfaction.
For a time – I kid you not – I thought about saying that my name is "Goddess" because no doubt it would be a roaring good time to have the barista address me as such. Can you imagine? I figured it would make me, and perhaps others in line, smile, and add a little dash of joy to the pre-caffeinated state.
I almost tried it once, just to see the looks on people's faces, but I knew such a stunt would call more attention my way, when generally I really just want to remain anonymous in the queue, surfing the issues du jour on my BlackBerry and waiting peacefully as I marvel at the icing-covered items I will not buy behind the glass.
But the diligent people at my regular coffee place were so ardently determined to get my name right that I didn't want to disappoint them by being a grumpy stick-in-the-mud. And really, bless their hearts for taking the time and making the effort. Part of me really does appreciate it. They seemed so happy when they could finally greet me as soon as I made it to the front of the line with a proud salutation and a big smile of victory at having conquered my uncommon name.
I suppose there must be consumer studies somewhere that say this tactic generates happier, repeat customers and better tips. It's the sense of belonging: the "Norm!" call upon entering a favourite watering hole. I can hear the theme song from Cheers now: "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your na-a-ame, and they're always glad you ca-a-ame…."
I'm not sure if my ambivalence is due to the fact that wherever I go, this first-name-basis trend seems to follow me – the bank machine now greets me, too, and I'm afraid to order "fries with that" anywhere for fear of personalized disapproval from the lineup – or if it's simply that it adds more in the way of ambient noise and responsibility to my day. Yes, responsibility. When I'm anonymously in line, I can simply daydream for a few minutes while waiting for my fancy beverage, quietly contemplating everything on my to-do list, a project idea, or what kind of dog the person in front of me (whose first name I now know) must have, based on the hair clinging to their wool coat.
It's this ability to have a kind of quiet solitude in the midst of the fray that I miss: the Zen of the zone-out into my own thoughts.
If you fail to hear when your coffee-type-beverage is announced, nobody cares. But if you fail to hear your own name being called, it's like you're in trouble with the teacher. All the other kids look at you, and you sheepishly glance sideways from whatever was distracting you (usually e-mail) and scan to see if any colleagues are present to witness you having been caught not paying attention in class.
Perhaps the argument is really between the introverts and the extroverts. I'm squarely in the former category, though when there's something I feel passionately about I'll gladly step out on stage and you can't shut me up. Otherwise, I don't need to hear my voice – or my name – just for the sake of filling the air. I'm perfectly happy surrounded by other people's chatter about the weather or last night's game or whatever, and in the past would covertly eavesdrop to amuse myself or tune them out to contemplate the aforementioned breed of dog leaving the hair on the coat.
But now I feel like I'm constantly on stage because I'm waiting for my name to be called, as if I were auditioning for a part.
There's a little surge of adrenaline as you move up the queue, waiting for your order to come due. You don't want to miss your casting call to be an efficient customer, accepting the prize and exiting stage left.
I wonder what would happen if I turned to the rest of the line, smiled and took a bow as I left? Thank you, thank you. Please, just call me Goddess.
LouAnn Buhrows lives in Toronto.