What’s in a name? A mouthful of nuances.

I have been explaining the pronunciation and origin of my name since the first day of kindergarten (thanks, Mum and Dad!).

Given its complexity — and me being the first child and the oldest grandchild on both sides of my family — I was given an endearing nickname early on. It’s a name that only my family, my earliest childhood friends and a handful of intimates — people I affectionately refer to as “old world” confidants — call me.

I don’t offer it up when I introduce myself, and I would never use it professionally. On the occasion that a “new world” friend hears and uses my nickname, it’s always unexpected like a boundary unintentionally has been crossed. It’s neither right nor wrong. It’s just a preference that they use my given name.

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

And the most important thing one can do upon an introduction is to get the name right and use it correctly going forward. A name is tied to one’s identity and the unique character they encompass.

There’s no hard and fast rule about whether you should use your given name over your nickname. The point is to be consistent, which benefits your professional position and brand.

One of my closest friends from childhood is Nicki. All our friends and family refer to her by shortened versions of her name. While earning a law degree, she began using her given name, Nicole, with friends and colleagues in her new hometown. It’s an identity I am unfamiliar with, as if her peers are referring to someone else. But “when in Rome,” I also address her as Nicole in front of her professional colleagues and in mixed company. I reserve Nick for just the two of us.

Another dear friend of mine, who is now Charles but was once Chuck, made a faux pas upon meeting his fiancée’s family in Ireland. It was the big introductory dinner with every relative in attendance. His future sister-in-law was chatting with her husband, Colum, but referring to him as Cullie. Attempting to break the ice and make small talk, Charles also referred to him as Cullie. Charles’ fiancée almost fell off her chair, and the sister-in-law choked on her coddle and cabbage. Cullie was an intimate name reserved only for wife and husband. Suffice it to say, Charles now focuses intently on the name given during an introduction and never strays from it.

From Virginia to Ginnie and William to Billy, there are hundreds of names that can be shortened and sweetened. Some convey familiarity and deep bonds. Others match the personality of their owner. Try as you may, there will always be someone who will modify a name for better or worse. Here are some tips on putting and keeping a name with a face.

  • Use a title and full name when introducing someone: “This is my friend Dr. Jillian Browne.”
  • When meeting someone for the first time, call the person by the name you’ve been given and stick with it. Repeat the name back: “Nice to meet you, Miguel.” Drop it in a few sentences to commit it to memory and to show attention and respect.
  • While you may call your good friend by their nickname, introduce them by their preferred name in public.
  • Introduce yourself with what you’d like to be called. If you’ve been introduced by a friend or colleague with a version of your name you don’t use regularly, then add to that introduction your preference: “Call me Sam.” If you have a unique name or nonstandard pronunciation, speak slowly. Correct people right away.
  • Should you hear someone refer to a friend by their nickname, don’t use it. Should someone incorrectly address you by your nickname, try responding with “I prefer Victoria” or “Tori is my husband’s pet name for me. You can call me Victoria.”
  • As a parent who prefers the given name for their child, use it consistently to convey that you don’t intend to shorten it. If a relative persists in calling your child Andy or Drew, you can be as soft or direct as you like: “Actually we’re sticking with just Andrew” or “We’re calling him James. I’m sure as he gets older, he may choose to shorten it, but we want to leave that choice to him.” A nickname between the generations may become a term of endearment or an affront to your wishes. Choose your battles wisely.
  • It’s always appropriate to ask what an individual would like to be called, to repeat it and how to spell it.

Using a person’s preferred name is a power move and establishes connection. It shows they matter, which in turn gives you a good name.

Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and conundrums at hello@etiquette santafe.com or 505-988-2070.

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