Brand building through storytelling

Don’t call me “sweetie;” my name is Rona

All my life I have listened for the sound of my name. From kindergarten roll call through high school graduation and beyond, it has marked my place in the world. Before I was born, my parents must have repeated my name out loud as all expectant parents do, testing the rhythm at first and then savouring it like their own special song: Rona Maynard, Rona Maynard. And chances are I could hear them. If a fetus can tell the difference between a familiar fairy tale and a new one, as a French study famously showed, then it must have been a snap to distinguish my name from, say, “phone bill” or “kitchen table.”

My name was the first thing I learned to write, gripping my pencil to form the letters that would separate this sheet of ruled white paper from everyone else’s. To write your name is to say, “I was here.”

I’ve seen my name on class lists, credit cards, magazine articles and any number of  documents. When I first saw “Rona Maynard” on the cover of my memoir, I thought to myself, “This book is finally real, and it’s mine.”  When my husband gave me a neon sign with my name on it (and in my signature, to boot), I was reminded how wondrous it is to be loved.

As a child I used to long for a more familiar name that everyone could spell and pronounce. But I’ve come to like being Rona Maynard, never mind that some people call me Rhonda or Mona, and Frenchify my surname (for the record, it’s not MeNARD but the evenly accented MAY-NARD). My name is as much a part of me as the shape of my eyes or my smile—perhaps even more so as my face continues to soften and harden in the most unwelcome places. When my obituary appears (and it had better be a proper one, studded with surprising facts and amusing anecdotes), the name at the top will still be Rona Maynard.

Meanwhile you can call me Rona, although Ms. Maynard does nicely in formal situations. I don’t encourage Ro, much as I  appreciate the good intentions signaled by a nickname. What you must never even think of calling me, unless we’re on intimate terms, is “sweetie” or “dear.” And there’s no excuse whatsoever for the dread “young lady.” I have a perfectly serviceable name and I expect you to use it. Even—no, especially—if you end up serving gluey mashed potatoes and overcooked beef in an old age home where I, in my bathrobe, am presumed to be addled just because I’ve had the bad grace to get a little shaky on my feet.

I remember visiting my father at the so-called “home” to which severe arthritis had confined him. Not once did any staffer address him by name, this man who quoted Wordsworth and Millay in a voice that retained its youthful vigour. Why bother to remember anyone’s name, when you can simply use the all-purpose “dear?” These old codgers were all alike, weren’t they? That seemed to be the thinking, and it made me shudder. But much as I resented the insult to my father, I didn’t think the “dear” routine had anything to do with me.

Now that I’m about to turn 59, I can’t be so offhand about the degradation of elderspeak, as it’s known to the people who study old age. I’ve almost arrived at the years of insult, and I’m already marshaling my defenses. Latest weapon: research showing that elderspeak, far from comforting the old, threatens their health and can actually shorten their lives. By treating adults like children, health care workers imply that they’re incompetent. Result: people with dementia become surly and uncooperative, while those who are perfectly sharp may explode in a rage.

I’ve always believed that nothing destroys a person, young or old, like the theft of their dignity. So the researchers’ conclusions, which I’ve just found in New York Times story, were not exactly a surprise. The eye-opener was a supporting anecdote about a woman who complained to her pharmacist about the new packaging of her cancer medication. A gizmo she couldn’t open had replaced the handy vial. Why? The gizmo was designed to help her remember the daily dose, said the pharmacist. But the patient had no problems with memory, and she felt demeaned: “Who says I don’t take my medicine as prescribed? I am alive right now because I take those pills!” This woman is only 61—two years older than I am.

What to do? The Times story quotes one Ellen Kirschman, a 68-year-old police psychologist who loathes being called “young lady.” Her solution is not for all tastes but I must say it caught my attention. To let the world know that that she’s neither young nor a lady, Ellen uses four-letter words—the conversational equivalent of  a motorcycle jacket and kick-ass boots. “That makes them think, This is someone to be reckoned with. A little sharpness seems to help.”

Go for it, Ellen. If you need to up the ante, how about a motorcycle jacket?


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