September 21, 2019

When Name Calling Is a Good Thing

As the cashier at the grocery store began to ring up my purchases, she glanced at me and asked, “Did you find everything you were looking for today, ma’am?”

I expected the question — it was company protocol to ask. Even on occasions when I hadn’t found quite everything I had looked for, I’d still answer blandly, “Yes, thank you.”

That day, I decided not to answer by rote. I read her name tag and said, “Yes, thank you, Toni.”

She looked back at me for a just a second and visibly brightened. “Glad to hear it!” she answered with a smile.

With only one word, I was able to infuse a predictable and commonplace interaction with a small spark of personal connection. She was not just a cashier ringing up groceries during a long shift. She was a woman named Toni.

Happy with these results, I have made it a regular habit to call sales clerks or service reps by name. I do it in person and even in online chats. In person, I always am rewarded with a smile, a straightening of the shoulders, an appreciative look. I’d like to think that I would have thought of doing this on my own, but I was prompted to do it because it’s a mitzvah to greet people with a pleasant demeanor. It’s also a mitzvah to be the first to greet another person. What was I waiting for?

You never know where a kind greeting can lead. My friend Barry not only chatted with the manager of a local mailbox store, calling her by name, he asked her out on a date. They were married within the year.

The simple practice of greeting others with a kind expression isn’t such a small thing after all.

Addressing people by their name in a caring way leaves deep impressions. Recently, I attended a memorial tribute for an elderly friend named Maurice. Now, Maurice was a big man with a big personality, brash and bluntly opinionated. We had belonged to Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, the “Shul on the Beach,” for many years. A strong baritone, Maurice had seized the opportunity to begin prayers and hymns with his melodies of choice. His commanding voice and musical selections helped define the spiritual atmosphere of the synagogue for nearly 40 years.

Maurice was a colorful character, yet as people reminisced and eulogized him, it was clear that he had touched people by always remembering shul members’ full names, bellowing out his greetings: “Jacob Israel!” Or, “Leah Emunah!” His loud acknowledgement became one of his trademarks, but it didn’t end there.

He also remembered the names of shul members’ extended family members, and he also remembered what troubles or issues they were dealing with.

As I sat listening to the tributes, I nodded in recognition. Long ago, I told Maurice that my sister was about to undergo another spinal surgery, and for years afterward, he’d regularly ask me, his brow furrowed with concern, “How’s your sister Sharon doing?”

One speaker said half-jokingly, “I thought Maurice only remembered the names of my parents and siblings. Now that I know he did that for everyone, I’m feeling a little less special.”

The youngest speaker at the event, a young mother in her 20s, recalled that even though the synagogue was overflowing with children, Maurice knew all their names. “We all understood that in a small congregation, we were each important. Only later did I realize that a big part of this feeling came from Maurice always addressing us by name.”

In today’s society, too many people feel invisible and lonely. Increasingly, even when we’d like to smile or nod or make small talk with another person in public, we can’t. Too often, they are in the addictive clutch of their phones, an impenetrable barrier. These small losses add up to a much larger fracturing of the social compact.

I discovered through my little experiment, and Maurice proved, that the simple, old-fashioned practice of greeting others with a kind expression and acknowledging their names when we can isn’t such a small thing after all.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith” (She Writes Press, 2017).