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.

I assumed that H.P.'s strategy had backfired, but maybe his objective had been different from mine. Perhaps his reasons for giving initials in place of a full name were less about sparing others inconvenience and more about wanting an accurate representation of himself on his coffee cup. I'll take any name with any spelling so long as I don't have to engage in a whole dialogue about it. In a place where everyone seems to be rushing, I feel guilty holding up the line for an extra ten seconds.

I'm not ashamed of my name, but I prefer to reserve conversations about it for less hurried, less public interactions. A back-and-forth about the spelling, pronunciation, origin, and meaning of "Svati" can be fun, even necessary—at a cocktail party, during an interview, on a date. While ordering coffee? Not so much.

This weekend I visited a Starbucks in San Jose, where I asked the barista if, and how, she knows when a customer lies about his or her name.  She told me about several regulars whom she knows by two names: There's Daryl, who admitted to her early on that he orders as "Mike" because it's easier to spell, and another guy who goes by Sam but whose credit card displays a name she "won't even try to pronounce." Luckily for Sam, this barista isn't the type to yell out a greeting every time he walks into the store. If you become a regular at an establishment where you've lied about your name, it can get awkward to return time after time to a friendly employee who has memorized your order and the fake name that goes with it.

It depends on what you seek when you order coffee, I guess. Want to slip by unnoticed? Adopt a pseudonym and learn to use it confidently. Want to call attention to yourself and/or make friends with the guys behind the counter? If you have an uncommon name, be a little self-righteous and make sure they get it right. "It's Chrysanthemum, like the flower. C-H-R-Y-S-A-N-T-H-E-M-U-M." The baristas will either love you or hate you.

Steven Harris/Flickr

Atlantic education editor Eleanor Barkhorn belongs to the camp that feels ordering a drink at Starbucks needn't be such a serious, or practical, affair. Have some fun with it and call yourself "Space Cowboy" like Barkhorn once did. (Her explanation: "This is kind of Gonzo, but when I was in college one of my best friends was also named Ellinor. We would often go to Panera together and order right after one another. Eleanor/Ellinor is a pretty uncommon name, so it would always confuse the cashiers when we gave the same name one after the other. So I would often make up a totally random name—sometimes even not a name at all. 'Space Cowboy' was probably the one I used most frequently.")

For now, Kristen works for me. But if you're confident enough to turn your coffee order into a joke, then by all means, go by "Batman" or "Spiderman"—or, if you're feeling particularly wicked, "He Who Must Not Be Named."