What's Your Starbucks Name?

A not-so-foolproof way to avoid confusion when ordering coffee: assume an alter ego
Davilyn Barnwell/The Atlantic

It was approximately 8:55 am last Friday morning when a stranger asked for my name. I was in a long line at Starbucks, and our conversation started with raised eyebrows from her—the barista—followed by my drink order: "I'll have a Grandé mocha." There might have been a hint of uptalk at the end of that statement, but there was nothing uncertain or wavering about my response to the next question. She asked for my name, and I shouted, without missing a beat, "Kristen." Articulating my real first name would have been awfully inconvenient, given the noise level around us and the need for efficiency. "Svati" always warrants repeating. My middle name, Kirsten, is also unfamiliar, so I modify it slightly to Kristen, which everyone recognizes. I am one of many "uncommonly named" people who do this all the time, at Starbucks and elsewhere.

An hour later, at the Atlantic headquarters, a senior editor saw me sipping my mocha and surmised that I'd stolen someone else's drink. This, too, happens all the time: Drinking out of disposable coffee cups scrawled with "Kristen"—or "Cristin," "Christen," and the like, because baristas are notorious for putting creative twists on even the most ubiquitous names—invites questions and teasing remarks. "Guess Kristen didn't get her coffee today." I had barely begun to explain—"Ha ha, actually, this is just the name..."—when our site's executive editor John Gould interrupted and self-identified as a member of the fake-Starbucks-name club.

Why would someone named John feel the need to call himself anything other than "John" when he orders his coffee? Gould says, "John is common-enough a name that, if there’s a crowd in line with you, it’s hard to feel confident that you’re the only John they’re making coffee for." So if there are more than a few other customers, he modifies his name; for a while, "Jack" was Gould's go-to, but after encountering another Jack in a Starbucks one day he switched to "Johnny." 

My colleague Judith Ohikuare goes by "Jay" when she orders at Starbucks. You'd think that "Judith" would be ideal in this situation—it's an uncommon but not unheard of name. Yet Ohikuare says she often ends up with cups labeled "Julie," and baristas have even written "Judas" and "Jewish." No wonder there are so many Tumblrs devoted to documenting Starbucks "name fails." A monosyllabic moniker that can double as a single initial, like Jay, is great. (Unless everyone starts doing it—can you imagine the chaos if a Betsy, a Beatrice, a Becca, and a Becky all walked into Starbucks at the same time and chose to identify themselves by first initial only?)

The man who stood behind me in line at the Starbucks in Foggy Bottom last Friday had not yet perfected his technique in this, the art of the pseudonymous coffee shop order. When asked for his name, he said: "My initials are H.P." Despite feeling instant kinship—He, too, has an unfamiliar name!—I cringed a little, knowing what would come next. The barista furrowed her brow: "What?" The man repeated, "H.P." The barista raised her voice and asked, "H. Pee or H. BEE?" Amateur hour over here, everybody.

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