Does name dropping really impress or turn people off?

I_love_meAt a conference recently, I sat listening to someone who might have been very interesting, but unfortunately, in the first two minutes he’d dropped so many names that he’d lost any credibility that he might have had. So, how many names is it healthy to drop and when should you stop?

Clearly, different audiences have different tolerances for name dropping. I’m doing a course at the moment with the Open University [ND=1] and one of the tutors uses almost every message that she posts to drop a name of some kind. It might be people she has judged in her long experience as a professional, companies who have sponsored her, or epic projects that she has undertaken.

My partner recently interviewed a potential new accountant. By the time he had left after an hour, we had a list of at least a dozen of his current clients, each casually dropped into the conversation. Now perhaps, as we’re psychotherapists we are particularly attuned to this, but clearly he had a different idea of what confidentially meant.

A wonderfully elegant piece of research by Dr Carmen Lebherz, from the University of Zurich, demonstrated the downside of name dropping. She took a large sample of undergraduate students and sent them each one of four slightly different email messages. The emails were written as if the sender was introducing themself to the student as a future research collaborator. In each they gave their age, where they lived, the details of a part-time job that they had, and one of three ‘degrees’ of name-drop. In some, the writer claimed to be a friend of tennis player, Roger Federer. In others, they claimed to be one of his ‘practice partners’, and in a third group they just said that they were a ‘fan’ of his. The emails sent to the fourth, control group, didn’t mention Federer at all.

Having received the messages, the recipients were asked to rate their future research partners. Those who received messages claiming to be from a friend or partner of Federer were rated less likeable and less competent than the other two groups. Worse still, those claiming to be friends with him were deemed to be ‘manipulative’ too!

Views among professionals vary as to the psychology behind name-dropping. Some believe that it is fundamentally a technique to boost a low self-esteem. Others associate it with a lower ability to empathize – failing to recognize that their audience is unimpressed.

One thing that professionals tend to agree on is the relationship between name-dropping and narcissism. While the idea of a specific narcissistic personality disorder is no longer vogue, it is a characteristic of several disorders and represents one of a pool of symptoms that tend to be associated with them. Narcissists make up about 6% of the population, and display particularly grandiose behaviour. Men outnumber women about 3 to 1. They believe that they are more attractive, intelligent, and important than others. They exaggerate their achievements and abilities and have poorly controlled ids. Their own needs always come first, and when others say they have some this is dismissed as a sign of weakness. While they can be generous in front of others, they become cold and manipulative when they are not being watched. Interestingly, one of the commonest give aways that a narcissist is at large is the degree of name dropping that they indulge in.

So, next time you are confronted by a name dropper don’t be intimidated or impressed. Instead see through the charade, but be wary of lending them an ear – they are likely to want to bend it!

REFERENCE: Carmen Lebherz, Klaus Jonas, Barbara Tomljenovic (2009). Are we known by the company we keep? Effects of name-dropping on first impressions. Social Influence, 4 (1), 62-79 DOI:10.1080/15534510802343997

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