I have a name-dropping acquaintance who peppers her conversation with references to city or state bigwigs. I’ve come to avoid her as much as possible because I find this habit annoying and insulting. She makes me feel as if I am totally unimportant in the scheme of things. How can I react to such a person in a way that stops her in her tracks and forces her to stop this irritating habit when we’re together? What motivates name-dropping?
Dear Chopped Liver,
The essayist Joseph Epstein defines name-dropping as “using the magic that adheres to the names of celebrated people to establish one’s own superiority while at the same time making the next person feel the drabness of his or her own life. Name-dropping is a division of snobbery, and one of the snob’s missions is to encourage a feeling, however vague, of hopelessness in others.”
There’s surprisingly little research on name- dropping, but what little there is shows that you’re not alone: Most people find this behavior off-putting. A Swiss study in which people boasted about their (fabricated) friendship with tennis star Roger Federer found that the braggarts were liked less and considered less competent as a result of their name-dropping.
And societal pressures are at play, too. In some industries—and politics is one—name-dropping is rewarded with respect and prestige. Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychoanalyst who was one of the first to theorize on the causes and effects of social striving, observed that the chronic name-dropper often feels insecure about her own status. We all feel this way sometimes; our ruthless capitalist society is rough on the ego.
Your habitual name-dropper may be compensating for an especially intense insecurity. More disturbing, though, excessive name-dropping can be a symptom of narcissism. Clinical narcissists often need to feel superior, value others purely for the prestige they may offer, and lack empathy, which is why they name-drop.
So how to handle it? If your acquaintance is a narcissist, there isn’t much you can do to change her behavior, and so you should simply limit your exposure. But if you suspect that she isn’t, I’d try lighthearted mock escalation: “Oh, that’s so funny that you had dinner with the governor last Thursday—I was on my way back from Mar-a-Lago and needed to rest up for breakfast with Dennis Rodman, or I would have loved to drop by.” With every name she drops, you can respond with more unlikely scenarios. Unless she’s clinically self-absorbed, she’ll get your point.
Say a Bernie-bro academic living in the Midwest is dating a new girl. Bit of an age gap, and a bit of an education gap, but she says she’s cool with that. Second or third date, he finds out that she disavows feminism. Now, Bernie bro has been roundly bashing mainstream feminism on Facebook in the last year or so for its ridiculous support of Hillary, but considers himself a socialist feminist. So he feels horror that this girl rejects feminism and also harbors some other strange beliefs—such as that my friend should still be buying everything (dinner, drinks), even on the third date. “A man should woo a lady,” she tells him.