Its been just over a month since Starbucks started asking for your first name when you ordered a drink in their UK coffeehouses. It certainly divided media opinion when they first started it up. But given your first latte was free, I didn’t mind handing over my forename in exchange. Judging by the length of the queue, quite a few others didn’t either.

Their spiel went like this: “Have you noticed how everything seems a little impersonal nowadays? We’ve all become user names, reference numbers and IP addresses.

“From now on, we won’t refer to you as a ‘latte’ or a ‘mocha’, but instead as your folks intended: by your name.

Well, maybe there’s some truth in what they say. Certainly in our sprawling urban towns and cities our primary communities are often no longer where we live, or even where we work, meaning that often we feel ‘impersonal’ in those settings. But others have noted that actually all they want from a coffee shop is a good cup of coffee, at a reasonable price, with a pleasant enough experience. Therefore, as Chris Hackley, a marketing expert from Royal Holloway, put it, to be on first-name terms with your barista is “a bogus personalisation of an economic relationship. Friendship needs to be genuine.”

I guess the strange thing about Starbucks pushing ‘the name thing’ is that they are a sprawling international business machine, and we’re used to that being totally at odds with interpersonal communication. When I worked in the City of London I knew of at least three Starbucks branches within a 5 minutes walk, and there’s something about  someone knowing your first-name in that setting which just feels peculiar.

However, at the same time, is there not something warm and relational about someone asking for your name, and then using it to serve your product. If you’re up for it, then it does lift the experience. Even when you know they’re probably doing it because it’s company policy, what’s wrong with trying to kick-start something more relational? Couldn’t we all get better at seeing the people we engage with in-the-every day, even if it’s the supermarket assistant or the bus-driver, as just that: people?

Admittedly I have to say I haven’t been into Starbucks since – though only because Costa is closer & less-packed. In fact I was only reminded of all this when I came across the photo above online. Apparently a guy gave his name as ‘Voldemort’ and this was their comical response. Fair play to the quick-witted barista; that’s the kind of touch that makes you smile. 

But on this subject, is there something about the personal nature of Christianity that also stands out, potentially at odds amidst our ‘impersonal’ culture? Often people seem happy with a general and impersonal spirituality that helps them to get through life. Or even a somewhat withdrawn religious package that offers stability and meaning. But a God who knows your name and wants to use it? I guess, like with Starbucks, a natural reaction is to assume there’s an ulterior motive. Is it too good to be true to conclude there isn’t?

If you have a spare minute, you should also read this. Its a brilliantly funny account of someone who experiences the barista getting their name wrong – worth it for a quick chuckle.

Have you kept re-visiting Starbucks since they began this policy? Has it changed the experience for you?

And if you do comment, don’t forget to say what you’re name is 😉