Can't we have nice (fake) things? April 6, 2018 4:31 PM   Subscribe

This isn't a call out at all, I just wanted to let people know how I'm affected and see if others have had the same difficulty. I'm pretty sure my executive function isn't as great as it could be... but I REALLY struggle when people are telling backstories and asking for advice and use letters instead of fake names to anonymise the people they're discussing. Eg X said to Y they failed to post the letter but Y had given it to B on the way to C and D’s house because Z was in Hobart . Easier for me : Patrick said to Tim he’d failed to post the letter but Tim had given it to Trinh on the way to Rachel and Krista’s house because Bronwyn was in Hobart. May I suggest that it's a lot easier for us to follow who the actors are if you give fake names? I'd like to ask people to consider using entire names, or nouns or something other than letters. It's super hard to follow. Even on a professional white background. ;-)

As a narrative practice it dehumanises very human questions and makes it complicated to follow for people like me. (And maybe others?) When it's only two actors it's hard, but when there are more it’s very confusing and almost impossible in a sea of text.

The green is my favourite place and human relations are my favourite thing to read and consider (much more than I comment). This convention which works to anonymise can also dehumanise. I've noticed that journalists tend to use pseudonyms rather than initials. (Which seems more legal thing. )

I'm only posting because I wanted us to talk about it and wondered if others struggled the same way with those style of questions and for people to consider it might be hard for some to follow single letters in a wall of text. My eyesight isn’t what it was, maybe that’s part of but it affects my ability to engage but either way it's very challenging for me. Thank you for your consideration. .
posted by taff to Etiquette/Policy at 4:31 PM (51 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

I love how I think about stuff for so long that other people eventually just ask the question for me! This bothers me too, and I usually have to make up a name to mentally stand in for the letter when I'm reading, but then I give up because I can't remember the fake names I gave people..haha! I support this ask and should I ever have a question that requires names, I'll use fake ones instead of initials.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 4:44 PM on April 6, 2018 [10 favorites]


It’s hard for me to follow, too, and I really appreciate when people go with actual names, fake or not.
posted by Stacey at 4:47 PM on April 6, 2018 [5 favorites]


I like it when posts sort of combine these two approaches, and use names in alphabetical order. Rather than A, B, and C, or Tim, Jane, and Paul, you get Alice, Betty, and Chris. I'm not sure why, but for some reason, I find that makes it easiest to follow for me.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:57 PM on April 6, 2018 [28 favorites]


Any more than two letters-as-names and I can't follow what is happening. I think people may be doing it because it's the simplest way to be gender-neutral, which can be useful, but it can also be difficult when the people being discussed do have genders that are relevant (according to the OP) in the question. In that case I'd rather have some rando coded-female name or coded-male or non-coded names (and like lsm, I like when they're alphabetical but maybe that's from my old days at The Princeton Review)
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 5:01 PM on April 6, 2018 [13 favorites]


I like alphabetical names myself; I'm also terribly impressed when someone does theme names from, like, a Shakespeare play, or a well-known movie, or something like that so all the people on one side of the friend fight are Capulets and the other are Montagues. I always get a smile when someone goes for cultural-reference names.

People also sometimes use letters but group them, like "Two of the couples, Andy and Alice and Ben and Betty, think we should go to one place, but a third couple, Mark and Mary, prefer somewhere else, and Ned and Nell agree with them." Or they'll do "Alice and her kids Andy and Alex; Doug and his son Darren" etc, to make it a bit easier.

"I think people may be doing it because it's the simplest way to be gender-neutral, which can be useful"

We should do like the hurricane people and come up with an alphabetical list of gender-neutral names if people need them! Addison, Alex, Brooklyn, Chris, Jordan, Pat, Quinn, Robin ...
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 5:05 PM on April 6, 2018 [17 favorites]


On the other hand, your story example confused me greatly because it's from a parallel and wonderful universe where I get to live with Krista, and Tim comes to visit us.

I think that's my first metatalk callout
posted by lollusc at 5:23 PM on April 6, 2018 [11 favorites]


We should do like the hurricane people and come up with an alphabetical list of gender-neutral names if people need them! Addison, Alex, Brooklyn, Chris, Jordan, Pat, Quinn, Robin ...

Meta and Filter would also work.

So Meta said to Filter, “That's not how you scan cats.” And then Filter said, “Listen, you scan cats your way, I'll scan them my way.” I don't know which one is the right way, maybe they're both correct.
posted by Fizz at 5:48 PM on April 6, 2018 [8 favorites]


(Yes, totally sprung. A tiny call out to a few of the Sydney Mefites. I'd have added them all but that would have been very confusing for me!)
posted by taff at 6:03 PM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yes
Yes
Yes
Thank you for saying this!! I can’t track SHIT anymore!
posted by tristeza at 6:08 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


I responded to a question on the green recently where I wrote a paragraph about B and M and 'you' and permutations of interactions, and after I'd written it, I thought: no one will read that. But the OP used initials so I carried them forward. Next time I am responding to such a comment, I might turn the initials into names: Bea, Em, etc.
posted by Thella at 6:11 PM on April 6, 2018


Yes, agreed. I find the letters instead of names really difficult to follow.
posted by JenMarie at 6:17 PM on April 6, 2018


Wow. I thought it was just me. Thank you for posting this.
posted by veggieboy at 7:37 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


"Alice and her kids Andy and Alex"

Great example/suggestion. But, *please* don't do this in real life. I knew a couple whose names started with "J", and they named their 3 children with J's as the starting letter. Oh, you think you're being funny? Don't ever try to be 'funny' when coming up with names for your actual children (but it's fine for pets, be as funny as you want with those).

/PSA
posted by el io at 8:19 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


This is really hard for me too, and sometimes if there are enough variables I will actually copypaste the question into a note and replace the letters with names.

A = Abraham, Agatha, Alex
B = Bubba, Bertha, Bernie
C = Calvin, Camila, Casey
X = Xerxes, Xanthippe, Xiang
Y = Yasha, Yolanda, Yoshi
Z = Zachary, Zelda, Ziv
posted by Mizu at 8:19 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


YES! I agree. Though I have been assuming that people asking human-relations questions with that framing are maybe stronger on the engineering side than the people who are good at answering human-relations questions, and so the framing of the question is itself an indication of difficulty with human relations.

Even when the fake names are put in alphabetical order, they just remind me of the logic puzzles we had to do in fourth grade.
posted by lazuli at 8:36 PM on April 6, 2018 [5 favorites]


I agree with this, I also love the human relations questions but also have some executive functioning stuff, and I have legit skipped questions if I can't follow the letters.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:21 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


I never would have thought about this. I've often referred to partners online before by first initial only just in casual conversation, and I don't know why, because I'm not that inclined to be trying to conserve characters when typing normally. This is the kind of thing where I appreciate it being brought up because I wouldn't have thought about it being tough to follow for someone else.

I do think sometimes with human relations questions part of the problem is that the issue itself is so byzantine that by the end I'm not tracking super well even with names. I wish people with more complex questions sometimes would stop and kind of outline their question before actually writing it out, rather than doing a stream-of-consciousness brain dump about the problem, but I get that when you're stressed is not the most likely time to be doing that.
posted by Sequence at 9:55 PM on April 6, 2018 [11 favorites]


After implementing metafilter hurricane names, these imaginary people will have nearly as tumultuous life as anonymous appears to have, but the key difference is that it will all be their fault (unlike anonymous, most of the time). Quinn won't return my emails, or the money I lent. Quinn gossips, is a lush, a sexual predator. Quinn is the step-parent of many metafilter children. Quinn is also the uncaring, unpaying, non-custodial parent of many other metafilter cildren. Quinn is a terrible boss, colleague, and neighbour. Quinn could be internet-diagnosed with antisocial disorders, does drugs, has an unsavoury connection to cheese...

Apologies to all the mighty Quinns out there.
posted by b33j at 10:41 PM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


Oh, wow! I've never heard of this phenomenon before, and it's fascinating!

Does the same thing happen when they do that thing in old Russian and French novels with the initials and dashes?

e.g., "Upon reaching the city of L----, I immediately sought an introduction to Lord and Lady St. G-----, as I had been advised."

(Now that I know it's a problem for some people I'll do my best to not do it; I'm just curious about it.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:21 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


I just remembered that when we had to write skits in high school French class, the characters were always named Sid and Johnny, after Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. On the rare occasion there was a third, they'd be named Iggy, after Iggy Pop.

(My sister said that in her class, she and her friend Jim were always scene partners and wrote the characters Jim-Beaucoup and Mademoiselle Fifi.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:31 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think we should only ever use names of cats we have known.
posted by D.C. at 12:34 AM on April 7, 2018 [14 favorites]


Does the same thing happen when they do that thing in old Russian and French novels with the initials and dashes?

Interestingly I track those better than the situations described by the OP. But I get lost in Russian novels anyway because the names can be long and unfamiliar so I actually end up tracking those by first initial but then another character pops up with the same first initial or a character is referenced later by a different part of their name and I miss that it’s the same character.
posted by mrmurbles at 4:00 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


Does the same thing happen when they do that thing in old Russian and French novels with the initials and dashes?

YES! I keep trying to read old French and Russian novels and I just can't, because of the initials. I tried to read a recent novel by a Russian author, too, and had to quit because I couldn't track the names.
posted by cooker girl at 5:31 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


I never would have thought about this. I've often referred to partners online before by first initial only just in casual conversation

I can't speak for everyone, but when it's just one person, ("My partner, T, told me...") then it doesn't bother me at all. Like Jessamyn, I find that up to two people is still generally fine, and even beyond that, it doesn't hugely bother me, but when you suddenly have 5 different people represented by random letters, it can get confusing. (Although I imagine for the OP it may be easier, because I generally assume when someone uses random letters, they're just using the real person's first initial to come up with the letters.)
posted by litera scripta manet at 5:53 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


Oh, another alternative that sometimes works well is when a person just uses descriptors in place of name, like "Loud Coworker" or "Annoying Roommate" or whatever, although this doesn't work for every situation.
posted by litera scripta manet at 5:53 AM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]


But I get lost in Russian novels anyway because the names can be long and unfamiliar so I actually end up tracking those by first initial but then another character pops up with the same first initial or a character is referenced later by a different part of their name and I miss that it’s the same character.

I just read Columbine, and an irritating habit of the author is that he refers to some people, especially staff at the school, by their first names sometimes, by their last names sometimes, and by nicknames they'd been given ("Mr. D") at other times, sometimes in the same paragraph. I'm bad with names in general, and this was a big distraction and pretty frustrating.
posted by Orlop at 6:30 AM on April 7, 2018


As a cognitive thing, the question of which method of anonymizing works best for the reader is really individual. And believe me, as someone who has to grade students' interview studies (with anonymization as a requirement), I know what I'm talking about (then again, in a country where everyone is called Sofia or Jonas Eriksson it really is easier to have letters instead of names).

To be constructive: it is never a good idea to use adjacent letters. Anything that allows the brain to form quick involuntary patterns will muddy the waters of comprehension. Especially ABC and XYZ reside in many minds as single units and it is much more difficult to break these up into distinct entities.
The following would for example be easier on the reader:
Hero: H
Evil Stepsister: ES
Lawyer 1: L1 (and so on)
Bad Guy: BG

Names: names that actually tell the reader something, like "He who Must Not Be Named" are better than Adam and Eve or John and Jack. Like what litera scripta manet is saying.

The problem with a lot of the long-form stories about social embroilments that we're reading here is anyway not the way names are anonymized, but the narrative itself. Try putting in real names in "...X said to Y they failed to post the letter but Y had given it to B on the way to C and D’s house because Z was in Hobart." to make this readable we need to make distinctions between main-action causalities, side-action causalities and coincidence. It's a matter of editing text down to the information that is indispensable for the reader in order to parse the problem. As soon as we actively reduce the number of actors, even A B C occasionally works fine.
posted by Namlit at 6:42 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


Perhaps because English is not my first language and I don’t come from a Western culture, I would find it easier to anonymize with initials rather than having to come up with fake names recognizable to English speakers as such.
posted by needled at 8:14 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


Does the same thing happen when they do that thing in old Russian and French novels with the initials and dashes?

I get slightly confused by those, too, but I think I just realized that I tend to identify complicated proper nouns by initial letter and shape, more than anything, and those constructions at least give a bit of shape, at least with something like "Lady St. G----."

Perhaps because English is not my first language and I don’t come from a Western culture, I would find it easier to anonymize with initials rather than having to come up with fake names recognizable to English speakers as such.

It seems like fake names aren't even really necessary, though. Descriptions of who the person is ("my friend," "my friend's husband," "my boss," etc.) are generally easier to follow than any sort of names, I think.
posted by lazuli at 9:52 AM on April 7, 2018


I agree.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:16 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


Also in the Alice, Bob, Chris camp.
posted by vignettist at 2:34 PM on April 7, 2018


It might be difficult or intimidating for non-native English speakers to improvise names that would seem generic and placeholdery for an English speaking audience. I would find it similarly difficult to do this for a French audience.
posted by ardgedee at 2:49 PM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


But why do they have to be generic and place holdery for an English speaking audience? Half my family and 1/3 of my friends are Tibetan and speak and read and write English. I'd use their names and not expect some kind of racist response. I'd hope that just because the names used are not English doesn't mean we read anything in to it unless the writer of the question asks for it to be considered. And then perhaps only people from the same background of the person being discussed, should comment.

If metafilter as a community can't strip back prejudices from non Anglo anonymising names, I reckon we have a much bigger problem than my confusion over A B C and D.

Three of the actors in my example scenario were born in Australia, and three were not. One uses a Vietnamese name that in this context is gender neutral. I hope that shows that the names are largely irrelevant.

Although I do like the "worried neighbour" "unfortunate witness" "disgusted friend" "itchy partner" "judgey doctor" kind of descriptions a lot too. ;-P
posted by taff at 7:44 PM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]


I'm not concern trolling, I'm expressing a frustration that was shared with me by a foreign-born non-native speaker. I've learned that different cultures bring with them different assumptions about how to use English, and how to assimilate into English-speaking cultures. As a native English speaker, it's not my place to inform people who learned English as a second or fourth language about how comfortable they're supposed to be with improvising on conventions of the language.
posted by ardgedee at 4:56 AM on April 8, 2018


But they don't have to "improvise on conventions of the language," they just have to pick some damn names. If they know enough English to participate here, they know enough given names to use them in this situation. You don't have to be a scholar to know that Alice starts with A and Bob starts with B, and nobody's going to chew you out for using Bob instead of Bill. This is a non-issue.
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


I love it when people use descriptor names (Loud CoWorker, Friendly Neighbor, Oldest Sister, Angry Neighbor) rather than false names because the names don't mean anything to me and don't serve as more useful to me than just a letter would.
posted by crush at 8:26 AM on April 8, 2018 [8 favorites]


> But they don't have to "improvise on conventions of the language," they just have to pick some damn names.

I don't enjoy being the proxy in an argument so I'm not going to continue this. But in my own opinion I have to say it sounds hella presumptuous to hear that anybody should be happy and comfortable doing something alien to their native culture when I'm being told directly by someone that they are not.
posted by ardgedee at 9:48 AM on April 8, 2018


Is anybody saying that the names have to be "generic and placeholdery for an English speaking audience", though? The request wasn't to make names more Anglo-friendly, it was to use names (or descriptions) instead of initials, and preferably names that are somewhat distinct from each other.

Confusing example: A told B that C claimed that B lied on the job application.
Confusing example: Ann told Amy that Anna claimed that Amy lied on the job application.
Clearer example: Ann told Bruce that Charlie claimed that Bruce lied on the job application.
Clearer example: Jose told Amina that Tam claimed that Amina lied on the job application.
Clearer example: Manager told New Employee that Nosy Coworker claimed that New Employee lied on the job application.
posted by Lexica at 11:26 AM on April 8, 2018 [10 favorites]


I, too, have always found it laborious when people refer to Friend A or Friend B.

It's hard enough keeping track of Friends A through G but when you incorporate Coworkers A through G into the mix, and then you include A's DIL, DH, SIL, BFF and fiancée two of whom turn out to be the same person, and then the fiancée turns out to be also Coworker C.1a who is male, and has always had a cordial relationship at work with Friend A/Coworker B who is technically Coworker C.1a and C2.0's superior but in title only, but Coworker C.1a just got promoted and it's put a strain on the friend group both in and out of work, and the fiancée (but not A's fiancée) brought a bottle of Trader Joe's two buck chuck to the fiancé's engagement party and this was interpreted as a personal slight because they used to date when both fiancées first joined the salsa group and it's complicated because Friend A and Friend B are roommates... well, it all just seems like way too much drama.

If instead we explain:

Archie sent a message to Betty, but Veronica picked up Betty's phone.

Veronica texted Archie back using Betty's phone, so Archie thought the text was from Betty.

Archie responded with his encryption key, and Veronica responded with her own key, still using Betty's phone so it looked like it was Betty's key.

Archie encrypted a message with what he thought was Betty's key, thinking only Betty could read it: "Meet me at the Chok'lit Shoppe!"

However, because it was actually encrypted with Veronica's key, Veronica can decrypt it, read it, possibly tamper with it, re-encrypt with Betty's key, and forward it to Betty: "Meet me behind the football bleachers!"

Betty thinks this message is a secure communication from Archie.

Betty goes to meet Archie behind the football bleachers and is blocked by Veronica's characteristic villainy.

Archie does not know that Betty was thwarted by Veronica, and thinks Betty is late.

Eventually Archie concludes that Betty has stood him up and puts his attention back on Veronica. But after a while, inconsistencies in both Betty's and Veronica's attitudes cause him to wonder.

MeFi tells Archie to dump both Betty and Veronica, because Veronica is a player, and Betty deserves someone who doesn't waffle about how much he likes her.

Archie is confused because he just wanted someone to explain to him, in words of one syllable, how a Man-In-The-Middle Attack works.

MeFi insists Archie is burying the lede and needs to think about his problem differently if he wants to make any progress at all.

Everyone is happy, everyone has understood the problem and the cast of characters is easy to keep track of.
posted by tel3path at 2:26 PM on April 8, 2018 [5 favorites]


A THOUSAND TIMES THIS.

I don't even bother trying to decipher those letters-as-names posts anymore.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:01 PM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


I agree, names or monikers are much easier than letters. I don't mind whether they are alphabetical, from a particular cultural or multicultural background, or reduce people to a single identifying characteristic as long as the result is something that does not resemble an algebraic word problem.

Our brains are wired to make stories, and stories generally do not happen to letters of the alphabet.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:44 PM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


I have trouble with this too and I thought it was only me.
posted by agregoli at 5:49 AM on April 9, 2018


Our brains are wired to make stories, and stories generally do not happen to letters of the alphabet.

They did in my Kindergarten, baby!

I never knew the name of the curriculum. There were stories, worksheets and multimedia materials with these "whimsical" (read: borderline nightmare fuel) anthropomorphized capital letters, and a set of big, inflatable versions that sat on shelves in the classroom.

The consonants were men, the vowels were (unmarried) women, and no, I do not remember how they handled "sometimes y" but maybe that's why that curriculum didn't catch on more widely in the Reagan years.

Every once in a while, the teacher would have an "Alphabet Parade" set to one of the songs from the kit; each inflatable letter would be carried around by a different kid. There were 27 kids in the class. My teacher didn't like me because I already knew how to read, so it was my job to just sit quietly and watch.

But, anyway, maybe that's why I don't have any trouble sorting out stories where the characters are letters. And hey, that A Martinez guy can dot my i any time!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


Well I'm just remembering a trick I read in the Whizzkid's Handbook, for memorizing the alphabet backwards:

Zed why, ex double you vee,
You tea is our Kew pee,
Oh, 'en 'em 'ell Kay jay,
I hate Gee if he deceive BA.

This is a terribly written story which should never have been allowed to be published. The narrator opens with a question and then doesn't answer it. The antagonist, Gee, suddenly appears in the very last sentence with no introduction. Who is BA and what is the deception? Does it have something to do with peeing in the tea? Why set this in Kew and then totally neglect local colour? This is a hard reject, will not review again
posted by tel3path at 10:56 AM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


I also have a frustrating time following letters-as-names, and even have trouble with random names if there are more than two. I prefer descriptions-as-titles to help with context.
posted by desuetude at 1:46 PM on April 9, 2018


I have this trouble, and I also want to say that I absolutely do not expect people to come up with generic English names. In fact, distinct, non-English names would be EASIER for me to keep track of because they don't blur together so easily. So by all means, use whatever names in whatever you like! Just don't use a bunch of really similar ones if you can avoid it.
posted by brook horse at 5:29 PM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


So I have an acquaintance, call her Anna, and another acquaintance, call her Ana; and a friend I'll call Anand; and Anand's roommate Anya. Long story short, Ana and Anand hooked up during an analytics conference in Ann Arbor, and Ana freaked out because Anand yelled out Anna's name, and...
posted by tel3path at 5:38 PM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


having grown up in ann arbor, i suggest a2=ann arbor, to avoid confusion.
posted by clavdivs at 2:38 PM on April 10, 2018


I prefer the letters approach. Its easier to follow.
posted by biffa at 4:25 PM on April 10, 2018 [1 favorite]


My Grade 9 English teacher used to have a sign up on his classroom wall illustrating direct and indirect objects, and predicate adjectives and predicate nominatives. It read:
“Randy tossed Elmer an apple.
Randy is smart.
Randy is my friend.”
So, Randy and Elmer became the subjects and objects of many hypothetical questions by students and teacher. Lots of creative writing assignments and “use these vocabulary words in sentences” sentences, too. Oh, the unspeakable things Randy tossed poor Elmer over the years!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:15 AM on April 12, 2018


Agreed. Once you know a language, you really cognize text by recognizing the shapes of words. Anne and Bill are names, you don't have to parse each letter. A and B are not, so using them as a stand-in for names in text causes a mental hiccup each time the reader comes across it.
posted by smokysunday at 2:37 PM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]


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