My Secret Starbucks Name

One of the many challenges facing the global executive is the important task of pronouncing and spelling foreign names. Indians in the US do face some difficulty with American names – a strong Mallu accent can change a ‘John’ to a ‘Joan’ for instance – but in general they do fine. American first names are designed to be simple. The ones that aren’t, are mercilessly shortened to nicknames. I know many Tims, but no Timothys.

Americans pronouncing Indian names is an entirely different matter. Americans have never developed the mouthparts to be able to say Jagadeesan Radhakrishnan, or Sabyasachi Mukhopadhyaya. They may be called Radha and Tublu by friends and family. But Radha and Tublu will not put those names on their business cards. It is not in us Indians to shorten our names or make them easier for the Americans. Our business cards and email display names will always carry our names in full glory and we will grant the right to use our shorter names only selectively to Americans who have earned the right to it.

There are many situations where this philosophy does not work well. One, if you have an American boss. Two, if you are in Sales. If you have an American boss, he or she will decide on the first day of your employment what to call you. You can tell him right away, that you would like to be called Radha, or you can let him decide to call you ‘Jags’. To make matters worse, Americans cannot fathom the South Indian framework of (your name, father’s name, village name) in various permutations. So it is best to go in prepared with a proposal on what you would like to be called.

The other situation, as I said, arises if you are in Sales or in any job that requires you to be in constant touch with people outside the company. Take my example. I have a pretty straightforward first name – Basab. It is pronounced baa-sub. It’s not a very common name outside of Bengal (my mother is Bengali) but it has the virtue of being short.

Unlike the other examples I gave, the Americans respond to my name differently, when we are meeting for the first time. Where they are tentative and tongue-twisted with a ‘Sabyasachi’, they are confident and almost relieved about a ‘Basab’. Here, they say, is an Indian name that I will conquer with absolutely no help. I can do this, they think, and then say out loud – “Bu-saab, how you doin?”

Since I was in Sales and more often than not, the American I was meeting was a client, I never corrected anybody on the pronunciation of my name. Some clients would figure it out, some clients wouldn’t. There emerged a strong correlation between clients who were giving me more business and clients who pronounced my name correctly. At one time, I had begun forecasting my pipeline solely based upon a simple but unorthodox heuristic – proposals to clients who could pronounce my name correctly had an 80% chance of converting to revenue. Others weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. This was a pretty neat heuristic. If this was indeed true, to improve my win rate, I just had to train my clients on how to pronounce my first name and the rest would take care of itself. My win rates would soar and I would become the star Sales guy in the team.

Unfortunately, I was mixing up cause and effect and soon decided to move on to another brand of snake oil to improve my win rates.

All things being equal, in Sales, you can be under a major handicap if the client is unsure about how your name is pronounced. A guy I know had the following email signature – Niraj (knee-rudge) Sharma. He was a top Sales rep at Infosys. Others have to take even stronger measures. There was a guy I had some business dealings with in New York, whose parents, in an inspired moment nearly half a century back in India, had named him Bhuleshwar Gandhi. In New York, when he wisely decided to change his name, he decided to not succumb to sentimental half-measures – he changed his name to Bill Grandee. I suspect that was a turning point in his career.

Back to me. Having muddled through my sales career in the US being called anything (or nothing, many people chose to just point) I am now completely inured to the pronunciation of my first name. I suspect that many of my Indian friends here now call me Bus-aab. It doesn’t matter to me any more. But at one time it did. Way back when, in a moment of despair that only a sales guy short on his quota will understand, I told my wife that I wanted to change my first name. ‘Bobby’ I said, ‘had a nice ring to it and was close enough to Basab’. She said that she had married a Basab and was not keen on widening the field to Bobbys and such like. I left it that.

But there is one place where I can stop being Basab and become someone else – at Starbucks. Where I can fling off my Clark Kent persona and become Bobby man. At Starbucks, they pride themselves in customizing your cup of caffeine to just the way you want it. Naturally, all parties are then interested in getting that personalized cup of coffee to the right person. Ergo, they ask for your name which they dutifully scrawl on the cup. The Barista then concocts your cup, screws up his eyes at the name written on the cup and loudly calls it out. A name like Basab can come out at the other end, totally unrecognizable even by its owner. After a few disasters with Basab, I just switched to Bobby. It’s a win-win. It helps the good people at Starbucks (excellent service, by the way) and lets me live my double life as Basab and Bobby.

So that’s my secret name and now you know it.

I have altered the names of all the people named in this post to preserve their anonymity. However, if they can still identify themselves, I hope they will forgive me in the name or art, or whatever.