A coffee ordered by any other name would taste as sweet, sort of
Name?” the barista asks, meeting my eyes. I hesitate for just a moment.
“Amelia,” I say firmly. I’ve used the name Amelia so many times for food and drink orders that if I hear the name in public, I’ll probably whip around (“Who, me?”). The only problem is that Amelia isn’t my name. I learned the hard way that any attempt to use my real name for a food or drink order would be met with a double-take at best and total confusion at worst. The typical ordering routine in chain restaurants and coffee shops tends to favor simple, uncomplicated, all-American names that are easy to scrawl on the side of a Starbucks cup. My friends with names like Alex and Emily never have to spell their names when they place a food order.
My name, Divya, is a pretty popular one in India—it comes from the Sanskrit word for “divine”— but as far as I know, its only inroads into American popular culture has been courtesy of the character Divya Katdare on the USA Network television series Royal Pains. I love my name, but it won’t be showing up on a gift shop key-chain anytime soon.
So when someone asks “Name?” I pause. Who will I be today? My go-to “Starbucks name” used to be Jane—plain, simple, easy to pronounce. But the baristas at my trendier-than-thou TriBeCa coffee shop soon saw through my ruse. “Jane?” they would repeat back to me, cocking a disbelieving pierced eyebrow. “Jane,” I would mumble, grabbing my order and busying myself with the milk. Maybe Jane was too obviously not my name. After all, I wasn’t plain or simple, or easy to pronounce. So I became Amelia—Jane’s cooler, younger sister, who goes to music festivals and wears flower crowns. To date, no one has suspected Amelia of not being who she claims to be.
The phenomenon of “Starbucks name” is remarkably common. And it’s not restricted to people with so-called “ethnic” names, either. “I’ve been using the name Amy for food orders since I was about fifteen or sixteen,” said Ariana Hirsh, 25, a laboratory manager in Oakland, Calif. “It’s close enough to my own name that I might look up if I hear it. People do a double-take when I say Ariana—but not always, because it’s not that weird of a name, which is why I’ve started to use it again.” Hirsh admitted that using her real name now brings up a host of associations, not all of them pleasant. “Now when I use “Ariana,” people are like ‘Oh, like Ariana Grande.’ I hate Ariana Grande.”
Some people can trace their embrace of an alternate food-order identity back to a specific moment. Nitin Pawar, 26, a Houston businessman, recalled a memorable Au Bon Pain breakfast order during his freshman year of college that ended with him giving the employee his initials after she was unable to take down his name, even after he spelled it for her. “I told her that on second thought, my initials were fine, and to just put down N.P.,” Pawar said. “When she went to read it out, she pronounced it like it was a name—like ‘Nnnnpppp.’” After that experience, Pawar said, he has gone with Nate.
For some, giving a fake name for food orders is not about greasing the wheels of commerce—instead, it’s about privacy. “It sounds paranoid, but I just don’t like giving strangers my name unless I absolutely have to,” said L., 60, a college professor in Rochester, N.Y. who asked, unsurprisingly, to remain anonymous. “Your name is your name.”
That’s a statement that Suhaila Meera, 25, a development associate in New York, would agree with—but for different reasons. “I actually never use a fake name,” Meera said. “Like, it’s my name—if you can’t pronounce it, at least try.” Many of the interview subjects I spoke to expressed ambivalence about Americanizing or “whitewashing” their names, even if it’s just at their local Starbucks. Pawar noted that he didn’t mind using a “Starbucks name,” as most people haven’t been exposed to South Asian names like his, through no fault of their own. “I would be just as confused if I heard an unfamiliar name,” he said. But he added that in those instances when he’s ordering coffee or making a reservation with other South Asians, “There’s definitely a moment of temporary guilt when I feel like someone who has ‘Americanized’ the pronunciation of their name.”
Which brings me back to Amelia. On one hand, there’s something that feels undeniably transgressive about assuming an alternate identity, even just for the duration of a coffee order. It’s fun, like wearing a costume or putting on a wig. On the other, would it really kill me to take the extra few seconds to spell out my name, instead of bowing to the homogenizing forces of Fordist efficiency? Royal Pains may be canceled, but my name deserves to be heard. Next time I sidle up to the counter and hear the inevitable “Name?”, I’ll pause. And then I might just use my real name, instead.