Reese Witherspoon and the Beauty of Asking 'Do You Know Who I Am?'

Why strike "Do you know my name?" or the more popular version with the same theme—"Do you know who I am?"—from the societal lexicon when it can do so much? 

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Last night I found myself in a conversation with a friend about Reese Witherspoon. This was because earlier over the weekend in Atlanta our dear Reese found herself in a very embarrassing situation. She, a real life movie star, was not recognized by the officer who pulled over her husband, Jim Toth, who was driving the car—a Ford Focus, for goodness sake—after having apparently imbibed a few alcoholic beverages. Reese, riding shotgun, began to behave a little bit drunkenly, and asked the cop a variation of the phrase, "Do you know who I am?"—"Do you know my name?"—presumably to get out of the arrest. He said no, and maybe he did or maybe he didn't, but in the end Toth was arrested for DUI, and Witherspoon for "disorderly conduct." In the aftermath of all this Reese cancelled her TV appearances, and she apologized very nicely, and it all seems like she's being fairly reasonable and human and appealingly repentant about what was, honestly, a very human mistake. Even if you hate the behavior, it's hard to remain angry about it in light of the amusement (and blog posts!it has wrought. 

Drunk driving, of course, should never happen. But who among us has not had a few too many drinks at one point and sassed someone—a police officer, a bouncer, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a stranger? Further, who among us has not said, "Do you know who I am?" to someone whom we assume should know who we are?

Does that mean "Do you know my name?"—or the more popular version with the same theme, "Do you know who I am?"—is inherently bad, something that should never be uttered unless you're looking at a mirror and aren't quite sure of the answer, unless you're looking up at a doctor and really need to know the answer to the question, because you yourself don't know? That's what Keenan Mayo, writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, thinks. He calls it a "question so condescending, so pompous—and yet delivered with such frequency that workers in the service industry actually keep a stock answer ready for it, as if holstered and prepared to fire." He spoke to a few of said workers who said wise things like, "when you’ve gotten to that point that someone is asking the question, it’s gone beyond the point that it’s going to help," and "Sometimes you hear it if a guy is trying to be a tough guy." Usually it is said in conjunction with a bit of booze. Maybe this very writer has said it, and, no, they didn't. 

But there are worse questions, for sure, including an out-of-the-blue, "Do you have a drinking problem?" and "When are you due?" prior to any confirmation of pregnancy. It's also a rather interesting question, with a lot of interpretations! Depending on which word within is emphasized, it may mean very different things. Let's take a look:

Do you know who I am?

Interpretation: I actually don't, because perhaps I have been struck in the head with a large object and now have amnesia, so help me out here, OK? See also: "Are you my mother?"

Do you know who I am?

Interpretation: You seem to think you do. But do you, really? Do you? The tables are turned on you! Also, maybe it's just me, but this seems vaguely British, possibly droll.

Do you know who I am?

Interpretation: For some reason, there's a chance you're doing something other than knowing, and the speaker needs to call you on it. This might also be a colloquial variation of the emphasized "I am" that I would guess is the most common way to pronounce the phrase. Seems existential.

Do you know who I am?

Interpretation: You may be disguised as someone you are not, or perhaps a particular one of your several personalities is now emerging, and you want to be sure whomever you're speaking to knows the truth. Also existential.

Do you know who I am?

Interpretation: This, presumably, is how Reese said it. The message is that if you don't, you should, and clearly you are an idiot either way. This is a powerful message, whether people like it or not. It should not be used willy-nilly. But to take the phrase off the table of snarky life comments entirely would mean for far fewer instances at our enjoyment at the fact that celebrities have said it—and have been told "no." Mayo can thank the phrase for his article today, and I can do the same for this one.

The best use of "Do you know who I am?" with a surprise twist, for the record, is Logan Echolls saying it in Veronica Mars. He's taking a test and keeps writing after "pencils down" is called. His teacher tells him he cheated and can't hand in the paper. Logan asks, as only defiant Logan can, "Do you know who I am?" and when his teacher, further incensed, says no, Logan mixes his paper in with the others. Score. See, it's not a bad question, really. Not bad at all.

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