Using a fake name to order coffee can prevent misunderstandings in a clamorous cafe, but assuming another identity may have a personal cost.

When Dr Carmel O’Shannessy orders her coffee, she tells the barista her name is Amanda. In the past, she’s tried other aliases, including variations of her own name, but without much success. The hard ‘l’ sound at the end of Carmel can be difficult to hear, she says, which is why she once found ‘Kamo’ written on the lid of her takeaway cup.  

If you have ever had baristas butcher your name or felt awkward spelling it out at a cafe counter, you too might have told a white lie and used a fake name to order your flat white. 

You’re not alone. The challenges of listening in loud places, understanding unexpected accents and navigating cultural differences has made assuming a ‘coffee name’ common practice.  

Why baristas struggle with names  

The bustle behind the counter and the buzz of conversation can make cafes noisy places. Hearing someone’s name when they order a coffee can be tricky because of the lack of context clues that usually help us process a conversation, according to O’Shannessy, from the ANU School of Literature, Language and Linguistics.  

“When we’re normally listening to someone talking, we’re able to predict what’s coming next because we know what they’re talking about and we know how grammar works,” O’Shannessy says. “Whereas when we say our names, it’s not like a word contextualised in a sentence. There are no other clues. So, it’s very hard for the person to predict what might be coming next.  

“When people are working really fast in this very noisy environment, they’re doing a lot in a short span of time. If a name is easier for them to recognise, they get it more quickly. Vowels and consonants work together to help us understand each other. Hearing a vowel before or after some consonants can help us fill in the gaps.”  

This ability to make an educated guess explains why the name scrawled on your coffee cup is sometimes close but not quite right.  

Illustration: Anya Wotton/ANU

The effect of accents  

Dr Diana Cárdenas, from the ANU Research School of Psychology, has lived in Colombia, Canada and the Netherlands, but it was only when she came to Australia that she noticed people had difficulty understanding her first name when she ordered a coffee. “In most places, when I gave my name it worked out fine. But when I got here, because my accent is different, people struggled understanding it.”  

She switched to a more Anglo-Australian pronunciation of Diana (die-ana, as opposed to dee-anna), and when that didn’t work, shortened her coffee name to Dee. Even then, she would collect her drink and discover she’d been called Lee. One day, a friend called Olivia asked Cárdenas to order on her behalf.  

Cárdenas was amazed at how much easier it was. “Ever since, I’ve just stuck with Olivia and it’s working brilliantly.” Cárdenas says our brains are trained to listen to sounds that are specific to where we grew up. “When someone comes in with a different accent or a different way of pronouncing words, our brain is not able to match that word with what it thinks it should be. Even with simple names like Diana, the vowel difference can make it complicated.” 

The way masks can muffle our voices is an additional challenge that has emerged during the pandemic.  

Issues of identity  

Choosing a coffee alias is an example of convergence, a facet of what psychologists call communication accommodation theory: you’re adjusting your language behaviour or style of speech, either for the sake of efficiency or to make someone else feel more at ease.  

The opposite of this is divergence, which Cárdenas explains using her own circumstances. “If I feel that my Colombian identity is threatened and I want to make my social identity clear, I’m going to stick to my language behaviour — whether that’s my accent, language or name.”  

Having a coffee name to save others trouble can become an assimilation mechanism for people from diverse cultural backgrounds, says Dr Ksenia Gnevesheva, from the ANU School of Literature, Language and Linguistics.  

Gnevesheva uses Cindy as her alias because it sounds similar to her own name, which she says contains a combination of sounds that are difficult for English speakers to pronounce. “If you have a mainstream Anglo name, you are likely to use it when you’re getting coffee. Even if it gets misspelled, the barista is unlikely to ask you to spell it and then mispronounce it when your order is ready. It sounds innocent enough, but it does show how the life of an immigrant can be made more difficult by the smallest thing.”  

O’Shannessy agrees. “The darker side to this topic is that some people might be subject to pushback or discrimination just because of their name. It’s something we should take seriously, even if on the surface it’s sort of fun.”  

The name game  

If you want to adopt a coffee alias, O’Shannessy has some non-scientific tips to guide your choice:  

  • Pick a name that’s common and recognisable. It can be useful to choose a name that ends with a vowel.  
  • Using a name that has two or three syllables will provide more clues for the listener. 

Ultimately, a coffee name is a personal choice that you shouldn’t feel pressured into adopting. But if it speeds up the caffeinating process, it might be a convenient way to streamline your morning routine. 

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