I'm Michael, not Mike. Oh sure, some people call me Mike; most of the time I don't even notice, although I really don't like the sound of it. In my head, to myself, I'm always Michael.

Names have power. The power to name something is the power to define its very essence. Consider all the energy that goes into labelling different philosophies and ideas: it's not "discrimination", it's "affirmative action"; it's not "anti-life" vs. "anti-choice", it's "pro-choice" vs. "pro-life"; it's not "terrorist", it's "militant". When it comes to people, names in our American culture don't carry the same direct denotations that they have historically, but even still most people know what their name means at its root. Michael means "Who is like God?" Good question.

Knowing someone's name gives you a certain intimacy, and a certain sense of power. You know their name, and you know them. You aren't strangers anymore, you're acquaintances. You may pass by hundreds, even thousands of unknown faces on the street, but the next time the two of you meet there will be at least a nod or smile of recognition.

At times, this power makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I approach a girl and try to strike up a conversation, I never know if I should get her name at the beginning or at the end. Trying at the beginning seems awkward to me. Hi, I'm Michael, what's your name? It's much easier and more natural for me to start a conversation by talking about the place we're at, or whatever is going on around us. Plus, asking a girl's name at the outset is offensive to me: an overly intimate act, a forceful attempt to transform a stranger into an acquaintance without so much as a by-your-leave. Exchanging names isn't an incredibly significant event, but imposing that expectation on a stranger feels like a not-quite-benign form of emotional rape.

So my normal strategy is to engage the conversation using circumstantial observations and questions. Make a few wry remarks, share a laugh or two, and then once the conversation starts to drift I introduce myself and ask for a name in return. Once the Other lets you in a little through conversation, sharing names is part of the natural progression.

Most of my friends and acquaintances don't know my middle name. There's nothing embarrassing about it; it's a fine name. Sometimes people ask and I demur, I try to change the subject and avoid telling them. Why? I don't exactly know, but there's some inkling inside me that tells me to hold something back. Don't let anyone know too much about you, it says. The subject rarely comes up (because who really cares about middle names, anyway?), but even with life-long friends I get uncomfortable at the thought of revealing that corner of my identity. It's meaningless, useless, mere trivia -- but it's mine.

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» denomination... from ...fade to grey...

Michael (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogwriters) put up an interesting musing on the meaning and power of names. Here's a snip:Knowing someone's name gives you a certain intimacy, and a certain sense of power. You know... Read More

Michael Williams on names and starting conversations: When I approach a girl and try to strike up a conversation, I Read More

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