At a pot luck supper recently I met a woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail end to end. I was so impressed. Some time in the past I had read an article about long distance hiking on the AT. It mentioned that hikers often have “trail” names. They’re a sort of nickname that stays with the hiker throughout their journey over both time and distance. Other hikers leave them notes, instructions, messages, etc. They can leave messages for others and use their trail name in their sign off. At meetings of hikers they are identified by their trail name.
So – I asked her, “Is it polite to ask if you had a trail name and, if so, what was/is it?” I didn’t know if it was appropriate for me – a non-hiker – to know her “trail” name or if it was some sort of code of hikers. “It’s fine to ask – mine was _______. It’s funny, there is a whole group of people out there who only know me as ________. We have hikers’ get-togethers and people just call me by my trail name.”
My next question came out of my work as an etiquette trainer. Often I am asked about what we call people: last names and titles, first names, nicknames, “hey you”, and so on. The answer is always based on what name would convey respect and that often comes from the person’s preference. So…kids call adults by their first names only if the adult asks them to; otherwise, the respectful thing to do is to call them by their title and last name. An employee calls the managers in his company by their title and last name unless the manager indicates otherwise. Nicknames are saved for social situations and only if you know a person well enough to use it and be certain that it is not hurtful.
I was curious. How do trail names get picked? My hiker friend explained that there are two basic criteria which go into determining a trail name:
- Someone else picks the name. You never determine your own trail name.
- You get to okay the name. If it’s something that is offensive or hurtful to you, you can say so and they’ll look for another name.
My friend’s name was indeed picked by others, and she thought it was fine. It stuck! Those two elements are at the root of the answer I use when I’m asked questions about names. My response is always based on what is the respectful thing to do. In the northeast and on the west coast kids might call me Cindy. In the south and mid-west they are more likely to call me Dr. or Mrs. Senning. In the south it might be Miss Cindy (never in the northeast would I hear that!) I am comfortable with any of the above and am quick to let kids know that. But if I wasn’t, the default is always for them to call me Dr. or Mrs. Senning. As far as I’m concerned they are all respectful. As I tell the kids, “Just don’t call me ‘Hey you!’”
Nick names pose another conundrum. Maybe everyone calls him “Meatball.” And maybe he says he doesn’t mind; but does he? Who came up with that nickname? Did anyone really ever ask him? Names that highlight physical attributes, or call up an unfortunate experience may seem funny and everyone laughs, but is the person who’s stuck with that name really laughing. Maybe not…. Take great care with nicknames. My real name is Lucinda and my nickname is Cindy. Obviously that is fine but when I was a teen with naturally curly kind of frizzy hair I would have been very hurt if everyone called me “Friz”. The respectful thing is to avoid those potentially harmful names.
My husband’s name is John. When he grew up everyone called him Jack. Then he went to college and the professors all called him John, the name on their class lists, and he didn’t bother to correct anyone. Now I know when someone calls and asks for Jack it’s probably someone from his childhood. When others “suggested” they would call him John, he had the opportunity to say yes or no. He said yes. Just as my hiker friend said yes. People get to determine what names are okay wherever they are – not just on the trail. The experience of talking with the hiker helped to clarify that for me. And now I’ve had a chance to clarify it for you. I hope it does.
Cindy – that’s what I like to be called. (Although when I was about 16 some of my friends and my brother started calling me Luce and that has stuck with just a few people ever since. It’s okay with me!)