February 13, 2013

Italian Perspective

A Question on Last names

Dear American readers, please help me solve a conundrum that has been keeping my head busy for a while. Why do you feel the need to add the last name of your best friends, your brothers, your sisters and especially your significant other in your phone contacts?

No, I’m not kidding with this question. I think this is a really formal and unemotional practice and I want to know the reason behind it. In Italy we’re not used to it. I completely understand if you do it with acquaintances and business partners—I do that too. I can see the convenience of doing it to distinguish between people with the same first name. On my phone I have dozens of Giulias, Francescas, Andreas and Lucas, all extremely common names for Italian kids born at the end of the 80’s, and I need some kind of way to tell them apart. But when it comes to people who are very close to you, isn’t it superfluous to add their last name? Are you afraid that you will forget your siblings’ family name? According to my Italian standards, the most important Giulia in my life deserves to be identified only with her first name because she’s more special than all other Giulias on my phone. Such “last name practice” is therefore completely foreign to me and when I see that I show up on my best American friends’ phones as Enrica Nicoli Aldini, I feel as if I’m just a complete stranger to them, although I know very well I’m not. I go by my nickname on my Italian friends’ phones.

Yet the fact that you save your significant other’s contact with his or her last name in your phones is what drives me crazy the most. The person who is most intimate with you, with whom you share sleepless nights in bed, who is supposed to know each and every inch of you and your body is still given a last name in your phone. My boyfriend is my boyfriend, not a business partner.

I really can’t explain this OCD that you guys suffer from. In Italy we don’t do that. Even though smart phones allow us to specify a contact’s name, last name, and company they work for, we usually use nicknames for our partners and best friends. The percentage of people who follow the “last name rule” is very small compared to every single American who does that. Young Americans do it even more than adults, which is kind of surprising because you would assume the younger you are, the more informal you behave in social interactions and with social media.

I feel like part of the blame for this falls on Facebook. Besides forcing us to speak in third person, it also made it natural for us to refer to someone with his or her last name in our everyday casual conversations. Hence the need for a last name in the contacts list. Not only did Facebook tear the wall of privacy down, but it also created formality and coldness among relationships. My life online and in phones is determined by my last name. I write you a text message with my last name (and I have two, which is even worse). I post on your Facebook’s wall with my last name. I become my last name. I know this is not a real “conundrum”—I’m being ironic. But I really want to hear your reactions to my thoughts about the “last name practice.” It could be yet another example of the extent to which smart phones and social networks are affecting our lives. Please comment on this and provide an explanation. I won’t be happy until I know.