VIEW FROM THE CUBE
What's in a name? Plenty of confusion if you share one
By Sharron Kahn Luttrell, Globe Correspondent, 4/8/2001
A couple of years ago, a position opened in my office for a graphic designer. There were five or six candidates; one in particular stood out.
"She's perfect," my supervisor told me. "She has lots of experience. She's talented, professional. You'll love her."
"What are we waiting for? Hire her!" I said. "What's her name?"
"Same as yours," my boss answered. "Sharon."
If I had fur, it would have been standing on end. "She's all wrong," I blurted out. "Tell her to get lost."
I've been around long enough to know what happens when you share your name with a coworker. You get a "the" or an "a" tacked in front of your name. People refer to you by your fashion sense, as in, "The memo is from the Sarah with the dangly earrings and loose fitting tops."
People mix you up. They send personal e-mails to the wrong person and hold a silent grudge against you for never responding. They refer to you collectively, like you're a 1960s rock group.
I know this because I worked with The Ricks. There was a whole department full of Ricks: Rick with the beard, Rick without the beard, smiling Rick, Rick who overused the word "remarkable."
There was also a Ron, who I nonetheless thought of as a Rick. The Ricks had different last names, of course, but few of us could match them up correctly.
An ordinary work conversation could be derailed at the mere mention of a Rick. For example:
"Rick did a backup of the central server last night, which means. . ."
"The Rick with those eyebrows."
"You mean, the eyebrows that go like this?" (Place index fingers above eyes and point upward.)
"No. The eyebrows that go like this." (One index finger placed horizontally above bridge of nose.)
"Oh! You mean the Rick with the picture of his wife on his desk!"
"The wife with the short brown hair who's standing next to a stream?"
"Short? Well, kind of. It's to her shoulders."
We would become so intent on confirming the identity of a Rick, we'd forget all about the original topic. Instead, we'd return to our desks, satisfied that we had accomplished something that day.
I never asked any of the Ricks how they felt about being a name quartet, but I knew one thing for certain: I did not want to be a name twin. So I encouraged my boss to interview a few more candidates.
"You never know," I told her. "There could be someone great out there."
"Sharon's great," she said.
Sharon was hired. Right away I began to fantasize that Sharon, out of respect for my seniority, would insist that everyone call her by her middle name. On her first day, I put my stake in the ground, introducing myself with a special emphasis on my first name. I watched her closely for signs of discomfort. She aimed a level gaze at me.
"You spell your name wrong," she said. "There's only one r in Sharon."
That's when I resigned myself to being just another Sharon.
I wouldn't have minded so much if the other Sharon was tucked away in some far off department. Sure, we'd probably get each other's mail, but at least we'd have some physical distance separating our names. Instead, Sharon and I share not just a name, but an office. Our desks are seven feet apart. I write and edit publications. She designs them. We are two halves of a whole. To our coworkers, we're a Sharon composite.
Newly hired employees don't even bother to figure out which one of us is which. One had been on the job a week when she and Sharon got into a discussion about schools. The next day, Sharon left some information in the woman's mailbox. But when the new employee sat down to e-mail a thank you, she realized she had no idea which Sharon she had been talking with the day before.
She never did write the thank you. And she didn't get the two of us straight until her fourth month on the job when I sold her Girl Scout cookies. She confided that one year she bought 48 boxes so her daughter would get the free T-shirt. I confessed that I could eat a box of Thin Mints all by myself.
I didn't know this at the time, but those personal disclosures had the effect of developer on film. I was emerging in my coworker's mind as a sharply lined, full-blown individual, completely separate from the other Sharon.
The duplicate name is also a constant source of aggravation for the third person in our shared office space. When she calls our name over the partition, Sharon and I play chicken, each waiting for the other to respond. In fact, the only time I know for certain whether to answer is when there are only two of us in the room. But even that isn't foolproof.
Earlier this month we were working feverishly at our desks in order to meet a fast-approaching deadline. I was vaguely aware of Sharon muttering to herself on the other side of the partition.
"Sharon. Just give it up," she said.
I stopped working while her words registered. Why, that's not nice, I thought to myself. But, maybe she means I should give up the publication to the printer. I decided that's what she meant. I stood up and peered at her. "You want me to? You think it will be ready to release to the printer on Monday?"
Sharon stopped her work and looked up at me. "Huh?"
"You want me to give it up?"
Her expression changed from puzzlement to understanding. We realized at the same time what had happened: once again we'd been victims of mistaken identity, only this time we had no one to blame but ourselves. Now we have a new office rule: we may talk to ourselves, but never by name.
I've been an office twin for two years now. I don't exactly like it, but, like a younger sibling, it's starting to grow on me.
Sharron Kahn Luttrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page J9 of the Boston Globe on 4/8/2001.