For years, we had worked in relative anonymity as we were never given name plates. The function of the corporate name plate is to allay the need to ask where an employee sits, or to prevent the managerial embarrassment of forgetting an employee's name while introducing the new hires. Before we got name plates, we would prop up fast food toys, like the Jack In The Box antenna ball, or plastic candy dispensers or sock puppets to establish our corporate identities.
One day, the company president walked through our hallway. He stopped and asked if I was "Jack", for I was identified by the styrofoam antenna ball attached to a bent paper clip and looped into the fast-mount wall rails. I am not Jack.
The next day, we were informed that we were getting name plates. We were given a catalog and told to select a suitable font such that everyone's name would fit legibly, and we were to select a material that would match the carpet and cubicles and our easily-cleaned Formica "desks". We selected ocean grey and midnight blue to match the midnight-ocean-marble Formica. It was perfect. Except that we already know each others' names.
I have a strange history with name tags. I was my wife's guest at a somewhat exclusive engagement at a Los Angeles museum. There I met a gregarious California television personality, Huell Howser. He stood out to me mostly for his Hawaiian shirt, adrift in a sea of sport coats and ties; I wore a tie under my ubiquitous leather jacket. When I was introduced to Huell, I immediately commented on his fabulous shirt, and mused out loud about how much more comfortable I'd have been in one. He instantly admonished me for not choosing what I liked.
"My daddy always told me just to make sure that your hair is combed and your fingernails are clean. Now, next time I see you, you better be wearing that Hawaiian shirt." This was not a grumpy admonishment; Huell is a diplomat with an unflappably straightforward approach to the world and an infectious appreciation for its details. His speech is a mixture of Tennessee and California, he is part football player, part historian, and his enthusiasm for people and places is something to look upon with unmatchable admiration. Huell placed himself somewhere between sibling and parent, and I instantly felt at home in our conversation.
We joked further that I was going to try to steal his name tag when we checked in to the party, as the organizers had not prepared one for me. In the spirit of the Hawaiian shirt, Huell did not wear his name tag.
"Now, I don't need to wear name tags. If anyone wants to know who I am they can come right up and ask me." Of course, with local celebrity status, no one needed to ask who Huell was. I watched them try to coyly get a bit closer to him, inserting themselves between the man and the cheese tray so that they could accidentally assert niceties in his direction.
"Oh, Huell Howser? It's so nice to meet you. Your show is just so interesting, and how do you find such wonderful places? You know, I have an idea for a show…"
They all have ideas. In LA, everyone wants to be heard by someone who they think is even just a little bit of a bigger fish. The big fish don't need to listen; that's not how they got here.
Eventually, after enough was enough of the interruptions, Huell gave me his name tag. I put it on and we began to introduce me as him. This stopped much of the inane conversations about buffet table wine and finger sandwiches and "isn't the spinach dip simply divine". The gift of his temporary identity made a succinct point about the nature of name tags and the gentle art of self-assurance. Though I have yet to remove the name plate from my cubicle.