update: employee doesn’t want to use a name for themselves

Remember the letter-writer whose employee didn’t want to use a name for themselves? Here’s the update.

Thank you to Alison and to all of the commenters. I read every comment and learned a lot. (One thing I learned was that you all have excellent literary and pop culture taste!) I took a lot of what was said to heart and especially want to thank SaraM and GythaOgden for their lovely and insightful comments. A few things I feel compelled to add:

I had spoken to the employee previously about their situation and was told that their therapist had recommended that they not rush into any permanent or semi-permanent name changes. Their therapist asked them to ask us to “try to be comfortable with some ambiguity at the moment for the sake of their mental health.”

The employee does not identify as cisgender, and yes, it is their full name that is at issue. They still retain their legal name. Once they settle on a new name, they will consider changing their name so that they don’t, indeed, have to look at their dead name on paystubs, etc. At least that is what they told me, not that it is anyone’s business.

Socially — and I know this because we have mutual friends outside of work — they are also not using a name, and it seems to be causing some not dissimilar issues.

Many commenters mentioned the Public Universal Friend, which is interesting because “friend” is the term that we now try to use to get their attention and/or distinguish them in meetings. It has worked for the most part.

I spoke to my grandboss and he agreed that the name change need not be permanent.

I also spoke with the employee using some of the suggested language and explained that, at least for work purposes, they need to choose an identifier and that it need not be permanent. They said they understood and are going to think about it for a week. Once they do, the IT department should be able to find a workaround. 

Thanks so much for all of your advice!

{ 180 comments… read them below }

  1. Gerry Keay*

    Oh this is such a good outcome. Thank you for being so thoughtful and compassionate, and for so deftly balancing an individual’s very real needs with the very really logistics of communicating in a group.

  2. Your friendly neighborhood Zen Buddhist*

    I’m glad you were able to be gentle with this person while solving the issue.

  3. fort+hiss*

    Great outcome, really happy to here you were kind but firm. English just doesn’t work without names or something that clearly stands in for a name.

    (Also anyone who thought this person struggling with a name this hard was going to be cis: fair enough, but I’m certainly not surprised they’re aren’t.)

    1. Cait*

      The prefix for a non-binary person is Mx. (as opposed to Mr. or Ms.) so maybe they can go by “Mx” until they settle on a more permanent name?

          1. Mx*

            My current online (and possibly offline eventually) name is Mx, kinda like the prefix, but I pronounce each letter. So instead of ‘Mix’ or the full ‘Mixter’, it’s ‘Em-ex’. So either way could work for the employee if they like it.

          2. inaudible*

            I have heard that in North America we pronounce it like ‘mix’ but in the UK, they say it like more like ‘mux’. Anyone from the UK care to confirm?

      1. Midwest Teacher*

        We don’t know that the employee is non-binary though, just that they aren’t cis.

    2. Not the language*

      There are only one or two societies in the world that don’t use names in the conventional sense so let’s not fixate on the evils of English as being an issue here. The US can decide to eliminate names, perhaps change to numbers or symbols, but a foreign language is not to be blamed for shortfalls in/social constructs of American society.

      1. fort+hiss*

        Uhhh I specifically talked about another language, Japanese, in my last response, because it IS a language where you can get away with not using names. There’s a game series where the villain is literally called “ano kare” (translated as That Man) and it’s not a big deal at first, thought it becomes a joke as he’s never named. So, no, I’m not calling English evil, just referring back to my old comment. Some languages make it much easy to to avoid names or pronouns, but English isn’t one of them.

        1. Aaaa*

          I mean yes but no? You wouldn’t just say ano hito once you knew their name, unless you were being rude. Kare/kanojo have same way to use as he/she in English so not a huge difference. Maybe in terms of titles like sempai or sensei?

          1. fort+hiss*

            Using a title is one thing, but Japanese also allows for avoiding names because of how common it is the drop the subject. It’s more natural to just talk at someone than it is in English. Not saying that they don’t use names or anything silly like that, just that the dropped subject/understood subject facilitates avoiding them, and it sounds less unnatural to do so.

          2. Annony-mouse*

            Does Japanese have a way of referring to a person without naming them? As in when assigning project tasks in a group email or directing someone as to who they should talk to about the Llama Reports?

    3. Evie*

      When family trauma was mentioned, I didn’t even consider it a cisgender/non-cisgender issue. I thought the person no longer wanted to be associated with the family/given name.

  4. Goldenrod*

    Thanks for the update! Your letter inspired some of the most interesting and polarized debates in the comments that I’ve ever read on AAM – so thanks for submitting such a thought-provoking question too.

  5. GythaOgden*

    I’m honoured by the mention of my advice in your post. I’m glad it helped, and I’m glad your workplace is working with her. My thoughts are with you all and I hope for the best.

    1. Holycookiesbatman*

      Was your name chosen to resemble a certain witch in Discworld? If so, I’m literally listening to A Shepherd’s Crown as my car book right now (just ran through all the Tiffany books).

      1. GythaOgden*

        Yes!! I’m a big fantasy fan in general and when I got married I wanted a pun on Nanny Ogg, definitely! I just didn’t want to be NannyOgden (made me feel too old), so I used her first name instead.

    2. BubbleTeaFan*

      Can I ask why you keep using the pronoun “her”? Is there any indication this person uses those pronouns? Most of the comments here use they/them.

      1. GythaOgden*

        My apologies. I can’t honestly say why I did that other than force of habit. I get the issue completely and will try harder.

      2. GythaOgden*

        My apologies. I can’t honestly say why I did that other than force of habit, and I absolutely did not mean to compound the issue. I get the issue completely and will try harder.

        1. GythaOgden*

          Argh, double post. If Alison is able to delete one, the one I’m replying to is the one I’d like to keep.

      1. Charlotte+Lucas*

        I know someone who specifically changed her surname to avoid a connection with her father. She was OK with her given name. Family names are often even more fraught for people with family trauma.

    1. Raboot*

      We can safely assume that there is and that OP and the employee are not really so incompetent that they haven’t thought of that already.

    2. Person+from+the+Resume*

      LW clarifies in this follow up “yes, it is their full name that is at issue” meaning first, middle, and last name.

  6. Dotty*

    I got kicked off a professional association’s job board once when I posted a resume with no name, for a student internship (because I didn’t want anyone to form preconceptions based on gender or ethnicity.)
    The webmaster scolded me for being unprofessional.
    I asked if I could use “Mysterious Intern” and they said no and stop being childish. I asked if I could use Tuby Determined, and they said that sounded enough like a “real name” to be acceptable. Personally I felt that staying nameless was the more professional of those three options.

      1. Dotty*

        I don’t recall if that was something I tried. This was many years ago – the dawn of the internet, so things are probably less stuffy at this point. I hope so anyway.
        There are uses for namelessness.

    1. Venus*

      You were ahead of your time. Nameless resumes are becoming more popular! Specifically employers are sometimes removing names and addresses before people do the first resume and cover letter review, in the hope of making things a bit more equitable. Not a perfect system at all, but removing the name initially is so easy to do and hopefully will be helpful.

      1. kicking_k*

        This has happened in the UK for years. I have wondered how well it works – I went to a school that is well known to be single-sex (although they now make allowances for non-cisgender pupils, but that was not on the horizon when I attended) and I’ve had to list that on many an application form which claimed it would keep my name and gender private early in the process.

      2. Meep*

        My name is unisex, though more feminine leaning these days. Still, I find that based on the person’s gender I am talking to they usually make assumptions if I am male or female a good 70% of the time. It is kind of fun when men call expecting to reach another man and are sorely disappointed so they want to contact my male coworkers who redirect them right back to me. lol.

        But yes, skill rather than gender is the best approach to getting actual competent people.

    2. Nanani*

      Gee its almost like they want to be able to judge you based on gender and ethnicity preconceptions!

  7. A.N. O'Nyme*

    I’m glad that things seem to be working out for your employee, LW – wishing them all the best.

  8. Minimal+Pear*

    I’ve known a number of people who have used a temporary name which has then become permanent even though it’s an awkward fit for whatever reason, so I can see why they’re hesitant about rushing.

    1. Triumphant+Fox*

      some of the suggestions like using “Friend” or their a version of their work title might help with this, since it feels more like a placeholder.

      1. Minimal+Pear*

        I’ve actually known at least one person who picked something that was very clearly a placeholder and still ended up stuck with it for years (although I think it was also not QUITE as much of a bad fit in her case) so you never know!

    2. MM*

      Yeah. I really wanted to suggest “Ainsel” as a placeholder (Scots for “own self,” as in, “my own self”–purportedly the safe answer to give a supernatural being who wants to know your name!), but it’s too much like a name-name, and would probably stick.

  9. Falling+Diphthong*

    I quite like the “Friend” solution, at least while coming up with a more specific placeholder name.

    1. No Longer Looking*

      I mean, it is more polite then “Hey Nameless” which is what I’d probably end up using – but I’m also sure from my 30 years in offices that there is at least one person there who would be offended at the suggestion that they need to call someone “friend” that they aren’t friends with. We get so easily offended…

      1. Mr. Shark*

        Well, the person should just pick something. It’s a little ridiculous to be bending over backwards to not call that person *something*.

      2. inaudible*

        I’m told that in Canadian courts, lawyers refer to one another as “my learned friend” as a matter of custom.

        1. Hungry Magpie*

          I haven’t testified in Canadian court, but I have testified at a Canadian quasi-judicial hearing and I can confirm this. I noticed there was often quite a bit of irony included – usually opposing counsel was “my friend” but if the conversation really got heated, then it was “my LEARNED friend”, said in the same tone as a phrase ending “…and the horse you rode in on”! :D

    2. SpatulaCity*

      I too like the “Friend” solution. Much better than “America,” since I now have “A Horse with No Name” stuck in my head.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        I also had that going through my head on the last thread.
        “You’re in the desert. You have nothing else to do. NAME THE FREAKING HORSE.”

        1. Phony Genius*

          No point in naming the horse:

          In the desert you can’t remember your name
          ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain…

        2. Gimble*

          Thank you that reference. That entire book/series of columns lives, as the kids say, in my head rent-free.

    3. River Otter*

      I don’t really get why “Friend” can’t be the temporary placeholder. Sure, they’ll need a permanent moniker at some point, but why push them to choose a temporary placeholder when everyone is already using a temporary placeholder?

      1. Aggretsuko*

        Right. I’d say to pick a placeholder first and last because god knows computer systems will go berserk with a mononym, but Friend Friendly or something could work?

          1. Anon Today*

            I knew a guy who’s legal first name was A (he went by a different name) and it caused a never ending series of computer problems because databases aren’t set up to deal with single letter first names (which may have been why he chose it, he liked to mess with authority that way).

            1. Nina*

              My legal middle name is a single letter and while the problems don’t crop up as often (most computer systems are able to handle ‘multiple middle names’, ‘no middle names’, or ‘single-letter middle names’, but humans apparently find it more difficult to get their heads around) they do turn up occasionally.

      2. Midwest Teacher*

        In my profession, we refer to everyone as “Friend,” so that would get confusing!

        1. Katie*

          My 6-year-old very precisely insists on distinguishing between “friends” and “classmates,” but I’m really hoping he’ll outgrow the tendency to correct mere acquaintances who refer to themselves as his friends.

          1. Just Another Starving Artist*

            I don’t know; while I understand how rude it can seem to people, that kind of firm stance takes some folks a lifetime to learn. As an adult, I’ve seen the “don’t get it twisted, we are colleagues, NOT friends” work wonders.

          2. Jaydee*

            TBH, it always bothered me when my son was younger and the early childhood teachers would refer to everyone as friends. Like, when they’re babies and toddlers and truly can’t express varying levels of friendship with different kids, sure. It’s humorous to get the incident report sent home from daycare that says “Kiddo was bit by a friend today” or “Kiddo and a friend were playing with a toy and had trouble sharing; the friend pushed Kiddo and he bumped his arm on a table.” Toddlers aren’t being malicious when they bite and push. But by preschool/kindergarten they do start to develop preferences for some kids as actual friends and words have more meaning to them, so referring to a classmate who they don’t actually get along with as a “friend” seems a little off.

          3. Nina*

            Oh, I have colleagues who are friends and colleagues who are not friends, in my line of work it’s pretty common to have both and to be super clear about which are which.

      3. Your local password resetter*

        I believe they have a lot of external contacts, and it’s probably too confusing or seen as weird to use Friend with them.

    4. GythaOgden*

      That makes it much nicer for them than ‘hey, you’ or whatever. This is a genuinely heartwarming thread.

    5. Zombeyonce*

      I like it, too. It’s softer than what I would call them when given no options: Anonymous.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      Right? I had no idea they were a part of the history of my home state! RI has had some INTERESTING people in history.

    2. Zephy*

      The now-sadly-defunct Futility Closet podcast did an episode about them a few years ago. I believe you can still find the episodes archived on Futility Closet dot com.

          1. quill*

            Yeah, the whole network has more ads and less airtime now than it did a few years back. It’s the reason I don’t listen in my car anymore, because I can’t skip through the ads, which often REPEAT TWICE IN THE SAME AD BLOCK, ugh!

      1. Very Social*

        Jessica Kellgren-Fozard (a Quaker, disabled lesbian who does great videos on all those topics and more) did a really interesting video on the Public Universal Friend as well!

  10. Hills+to+Die+On*

    The therapist is a bit daft but I am glad this has a positive outcome for your Friend. I hope they find an identity that makes them happy.

    1. All+Het+Up+About+It*

      I think this is a really good update overall – but I definitely have a bit of a side-eye for the therapist for not thinking of how this would affect others, and thereby affect their patient.

      1. merida*

        Agreed! I wonder if the friend might have accidently misinterpreted the therapist’s advice. I mean no disrespect at all to the friend by speculating; I think this would be easy to misunderstand. Maybe the therapist was saying that it’s ok to not pick a name in the meantime and was thinking that friend’s colleague’s would just have to live with the uncertaintity for a short time – like a day or a week. But maybe the friend took it to mean an unspecified, longer amount of time?

        1. All Het Up About It*

          This is a very good point that you and others have made about things possibly being lost in translation from the therapist to Friend to OP to the commentariat.

    2. Falling+Diphthong*

      I suspect it reflects that the therapist’s interactions are all one-on-one and so the confusion with larger groups isn’t as evident. (Therapist doesn’t use a name, insurance and payment uses deadname.)

      If the therapist had five clients dealing with this, I imagine the therapist’s office would quickly have hit on something to call them in the schedule. The therapist can’t pull up notes for “your next patient is not name–no not that one, the other one… no still not there but you’re warm…”

      1. Orora*

        I appreciate you trying to give that therapist the benefit of the doubt but it’s still a bit ridiculous for a therapist to think that someone can go through life in the 21st century with no name. Part of the therapist’s job is to help their client navigate the world as it is, while helping them find different ways to do so in the long run. If the therapist had enough wherewithal to advise the patient on talking to their job about NOT using a name, they have enough smarts to guide their client into finding a way to be referred to that doesn’t cause them undue stress.

        So glad there is a positive outcome to this story.

        1. Charlotte+Lucas*

          Agreed. I was a little surprised that the therapist expected everyone around the employee to somehow change their behavior/expectations about something that is a normal part of being human.

          1. Momma Bear*

            I’m also in camp “wow, that was not good advice.” It is one thing to tell someone the name need not be permanent but to ask them to ask their employer to coast for an indefinite amount of time with not even a nickname? I’m really hoping there was something lost in translation.

            OTOH, I’m glad that there seems to be a workaround and solution in the making.

      2. goducks*

        I wouldn’t be surprised if the therapist’s scheduling software uses the deadname, since it’s probably linked to charting and billing, and therefore they’ll only get paid if they record things under a name that insurance will recognize. They probably are fine with no name in sessions, though.

      3. Cat+Lover*

        Same, this is really strange. I wonder if they didn’t tell the therapist that the “no name” thing extended into professional life?

      4. Phony Genius*

        I’ve head from some people who have been to therapists that some focus on what the client should do as if they are living in a vacuum. “This is what’s best for you, everybody else be damned.” Then they leave it up to the client to figure out how to make their advice work in the real world. Good therapists offer specific practical advice that works for most situations.

    3. blerpborf*

      Strange indeed that the therapist couldn’t anticipate that going totally nameless would cause issues in life and didn’t give them advice on how better to proceed. Dealing with pushback about going nameless with no other options offered needlessly required the nameless one to do more explaining, more talking (and thinking) about the name change and all the trauma associated with it., I would think.

    4. Cat+Lover*

      Same… kinda blows my mind that a therapist would okay this.

      I wonder if they didn’t tell their therapist that having no name was also including work settings.

    5. Siege*

      Yeah, I’m giving the therapist the side-eye. It truly might be best for the patient, but it kind of reminds me of some of the other letters on here where a therapist was not giving their patient appropriate advice and it caused a work issue.

    6. Calliope*

      I never take anything anyone says their therapist said 100% at face value. Not that I think anyone is being deliberately misleading. Just that you never know what someone is relating to their therapist about highly charged personal issues or if what they’re taking away is exactly what the therapist said either.

      1. Keeley+Jones,+The+Independent+Woman*

        I agree with this. The therapist could have suggested not rushing to pick a name as a general guide, but didn’t mean that they should go totally nameless indefinitely at work, as practicality wise for all the reasons in the OP, it doesn’t work.

        1. womanaroundtown*

          That’s certainly how I interpreted it – that they didn’t need to pick a permanent or even semi-permanent name for themselves at the moment, but in a “be gentle with yourself” kind of way. Not “continue to have no identifier as long as you want.” I thought of it more as “if you want to be Cersei this week, and Tyrion next week, and then the week after that feel like Yara is better, go for it until you find what works for you.”

      2. Lacey*

        Yes, I have a friend who will often tell me that their therapist has told them something definitive about a person we know, merely from a description given in session. Some of them are absurd things, like saying there’s no reason for someone to still be recovering 6 months after a traumatic event in their lives.

        I know there are bad therapists out there, but I refuse to believe that my friend’s therapist really said this. It would be so absurd. But on the other hand, I know that my friend truly believes their therapist said this.

      3. Kate*

        Absolutely. I’ve been in joint sessions with a psychologist with my ex-husband. Outside of the session the ex-husband would say to me: “you need to do ____, that’s what Psychologist told you have to do!”

        Next session would be Psychologist explaining: Hm…no, I did not say that. Let’s clarify.

        This cycle continued, ex-husband insisting that Psychologist said things to both of us that weren’t said. Ex wasn’t delusional, they weren’t hearing voices, nothing like that – but it was patterns of disordered thinking and a utterly wrong interpretation.

    7. MEH+Squared*

      Yes, but remember it’s the OP hearing about it from their employee who is interpreting what the therapist said. It might not have been exactly what is reported here (nor do we know what the therapist told the employee exactly, either.

      When I was seeing a therapist, I sometimes interpreted things the way I wanted to hear them, not as how she actually said them or meant them.

        1. Wants Green Things*

          Looks like it’s some change in the software. You can remove the plusses from your name in the box below the comment box and it’ll correct.

          1. MEH Squared*

            Thanks for letting me know. I was wondering how I accidentally put a plus in the box!

      1. River Otter*

        Absolutely. Anytime someone says their therapist advised them to do anything, I side-eye the person. Therapists almost never advise anything concrete. Therapists frequently ask questions designed to make you think about whether what you believe reflects reality, and people in therapy frequently interpret that to mean the therapist made a statement about reality.

    8. Person+from+the+Resume*

      Agree. That was my biggest takeaway. Sadly I don’t think it’s uncommon. I have several acquaintances who in my opinion are wasting money on a therapist who is listening and validating them instead guiding them to the best choices. For example if you want to divorce your wife, take steps to divorce your wife, do not be mean and hateful to her for years in the hopes that she’ll take action to divorce you.

      “Try to be comfortable with some ambiguity at the moment (for the sake of their mental health)” is not something you can or should ask of coworkers.

    9. Green great dragon*

      Therapist, as reported, said they didn’t have to rush into a *semi-permanent* name change. I’m far from certain they meant to encourage them refusing any sort of temporary signifier. ‘Some ambiguity’, is, appropriately, highly ambiguous, and could just have meant people would have to deal with a temporary way forward, not knowing if it would become permanent.

    10. Aggretsuko*

      I should tell my New Yorker therapist about this, she would definitely have some snappy commentary on that bit.

    11. Clandestine Timoraetta*

      I had a therapist that often suggested I do things at work that are completely at odds with my business culture norms. In that case, it was me who was like…yeah, no I’m not doing that at work, but a therapist should be helping you navigate the environment (or deal with the thing that come up about it on your own) instead of assuming treatment specific ideas will go over ok in a group.

  11. Popinki+(she/her)*

    I’m glad everyone was able to come at this from a position of mutual respect, to have the conversation that needed to be had while remaining sensitive to the employee’s feelings. Not just the OP, but the grandboss, the IT department, and of course the employee for being willing to listen and understand the issues it was causing at work.

  12. lcsa99*

    I am sure you don’t need more suggestions at this point, and this certainly won’t solve your issue with IT, but what if until they are comfortable settling with something permanent, the employee went by whatever the current day of the week was? As in, “Thursday, can you please work on the Slushman file?” That way, everyone will know what to call them each day, but since it changes every day, it won’t feel like a permanent solution and they won’t feel like they have to settle for anything until they are ready for it. I can understand how, like some comments above, they might fear they have to just settle on anything used temporarily.

    I really feel for this employee and hope they can become more comfortable being someone soon.

    1. WellRed*

      That has the potential to confuse timelines really fast. I’m glad the employee is considering a temporary solution.

    2. Kate*

      This is clever and I really like the way it emphasizes the short-term nature of itself as a solution!

    3. Littorally*

      Huh, that is neat and creative! I could see it occasionally getting confusing (“Can you get me these files, Friday?” versus “Can you get me these files by Friday?”) particularly across email chains that may last multiple days, but a little cautious phrasing should handle that.

      1. kicking_k*

        Friday used to be the standard nickname for girls named after the patron saint of Oxford, St Frideswide. (I used to live there but never met a Friday, to my disappointment.)

    4. Avery*

      I like the concept, but changing names every day might be overly confusing itself… I wonder if going by the current month might work similarly? The main issue I can see there is that some months are already used as gendered names, so if part of what they’re trying to avoid is the gender connotations, well, April/May/June won’t be fun…

    5. RagingADHD*

      “Mary, I need you to focus on the Jones file next week.
      Thursday, can you focus on the Smendiman file?”

      So when Mary reads this asynchonously, she (and everyone else) thinks she has 2 assignments, and the nameless person has nothing.

      Not to mention the significant number of people who walk around half the week saying, “Is today Tuesday or Wednesday? It’s like the week all runs together when we’re on deadline.”

      Nobody else at work needs to be involved in a personal creative art project. They’re just trying to get stuff done and be polite.

  13. Wants+Green+Things*

    That is… some odd advice from the therapist. At least your employee was willing to listen to the issue and is thinking on it. Like you said, you’re not asking for a permanent change, just thay you need *something* to call them for work purposes.

    1. csj*

      Yeah, my advice would be to get a more honest & constructive therapist. This is not normal behaviour and this person obviously needs professional help to work through something that has obviously been very traumatic.

      A therapist needs to put in the difficult and stressful work of helping this person, not pandering and passing the problem to employers and friends to navigate.

      I speak from experience of a therapist who took my cash and just told me what I wanted ti hear. Only when I found one who challenged me and helped me deal with the world, instead of trying to make the world deal with me, did I make progress and return to a successful career.

      1. Gerry Keay*

        This feels unfair given the incredibly small amount of information we have on the therapist’s practice. It sounds like it could very easily be a part of DBT, which very much focussing on the “both/and” of life and living with the discomfort of ambiguity. Poorly applied? Maybe! But claiming that the therapist is some sort of grifter because they’re using a therapeutic modality that you don’t understand is pretty over the top imo.

        1. Observer*

          No. Because it doesn’t matter what modality the therapist is using. What they told NoName speaks to incompetence. Because it’s inappropriate in many basic ways.

          1. womanaroundtown*

            I think this is incredibly ungenerous. We do not know what the therapist said. From what was written in this letter, assuming that was a direct quote, then I still think it’s ungenerous. I interpreted the therapist’s comment to mean, “feel free to change your identifier until you land on one that fits for you”, not “go nameless indefinitely.”

        2. Charlotte+Lucas*

          I don’t think the therapist is going grifter, but I also don’t think their approach is helpful to the employee. You can’t be expected to change all the people in your life & get them used to “living with ambiguity” in the way that suits your needs. I feel for the employee.

      2. Orora*

        I agree. Accepting ambiguity can be a part of a person’s emotional journey. Working on that myself.

        However, a therapist once told me that you can’t make other people go on your journey with you. They don’t or can’t always accept your journey. The employer went as far as they could on the journey (and were very accommodating) but they need a way to refer to the employee. A therapist who doesn’t see why not having a name in the workplace doesn’t seem to have a strong grip on helping their client deal with the reality of the world.

      3. MicroManagered*

        Either that or Friend is taking the therapist’s advice to an absurd extreme. A therapist may have said “don’t rush it! learn to live with some ambiguity!” without meaning “go seriously damage your reputation at work by asking for something that won’t make any sense.”

        When I was getting divorced, I was on the fence about keeping my married name or reverting to my family name. My therapist said to take my time, but I never would have taken that to mean my employer should use zero last name while I decided.

        1. TigressInTech*

          I think something like this is likely. I have some people close to me who often project their lessons from therapy onto me. This person may have taken “learn to live with ambiguity” and turned it into “if ambiguity is okay, and I need to be okay with ambiguity, everyone else needs to be okay with it too.” It feels absurd, as most of us recognize the situation requires nuance, but I find it helpful to remember that often when someone is projecting like that, they have (in my experience) additional social challenges which are making it more difficult to navigate the world and they’re (hopefully) receptive to additional therapy and boundaries set by other people, as Friend seems to be in this case.

        2. Dust Bunny*

          Yeah, this is my suspicion: The therapist meant “learn to live with some ambiguity about your own identity“, which is A-OK, but didn’t intend for the employee to generalize it to all aspects of their life, and employee [not maliciously] went a bit far.

          I’m not inclined to see malice or incompetence here, just a need for clearer communication.

          1. JSPA*

            Or, “work people and friends will have to live with the ambiguity of knowing that your chosen-temporary-identifier-of-convenience is neither your old name nor your future name.”

      4. Littorally*

        My experience with the kind of therapists who tend to advertise themselves to queer (& particularly gender-diverse) patients is that they’ll often lean farther into challenging what someone feels they can/can’t do in public versus advising practicality & avoidance of consequences. Which, well, sometimes that’s necessary, but the practicalities are also important!

    2. OyHiOh*

      I’m not sure it is, really. Years ago, I went through a period of learning to live with ambiguity (not related to gender/identity/naming conventions, so much less socially visible). It’s very scary to accept grey areas and to not have definitive black and white answers but I can see the value in the kind of work LW’s employee is doing in therapy, especially as relating to gender and identity. We’re accustomed to black and white truths but gender, identity, sexuality, and names are, on one level, deeply ambiguous and accepting that ambiguity can be a very necessary part of one’s journey.

      1. Wants Green Things*

        Yes, but I argue that work is not the place to live in ambiguity of the personal self.

      2. Observer*

        but I can see the value in the kind of work LW’s employee is doing in therapy,

        Yeah, but that it THEIR work – and it’s work they should be putting in, IN THERAPY. You really, really can’t ask your employer to take part in that work. Also, the employer was not just dealing with “comfort” and “ambiguity” but a concrete problem that is affecting work and other staff.

        Also, there are places where ambiguity is ok and others where it’s not. Being able to correctly and consistently identify people you are working with is one of those places where ambiguity is not ok. Sure, it’s probably not life-threatening. But it is not a minor quirk that people just need to get over.

      3. boo bot*

        I think this makes sense in general, but the request to “try to be comfortable with some ambiguity at the moment for the sake of their mental health” was directed to the LW and their colleagues, not the therapist’s patient. (I had to read it twice to catch that.)

        I do think it’s important for just about everyone to be able to live with ambiguity (there sure is a lot of it out there!), but it seems unusual for a therapist to tell a patient to say something like that to their boss rather than help them brainstorm ways to deal with the work issue (e.g., by picking a temporary handle) while continuing explore the ambiguity. Clearly it worked out okay, though, so who am I to say?

        1. Beany*

          I’m not sure it *has* worked out okay, though. From the last paragraph:

          “I also spoke with the employee using some of the suggested language and explained that, at least for work purposes, they need to choose an identifier and that it need not be permanent. They said they understood and are going to think about it for a week. Once they do, the IT department should be able to find a workaround. ”

          This reported response doesn’t fill me with confidence in the workplace situation becoming usefully stable in the near future. Are they going to spend a week choosing the temporary identifier, or *thinking about the fact* that they need to choose a temporary identifier?

          1. D*

            It seems quite clear to me that the employees is thinking abut a temporary identifier to use, and think it’s very uncharitable to assume the employee, who is reported to be understanding of the issues their situation is causing, does not accept that.

        2. Nanani*

          Yep. It’s kind of absurd when you put it into the work context.
          “We need to set up your email”
          – try to be comfortable with ambiguity
          “But what name do we put in the system?”
          – you really need to be more comfortable with ambiguity
          “Other departments need to be able to reach you though.”

          Therapist’s advice, possibly misinterpreted though it may be, is rather counterproductive.

    3. 178*

      As someone who works in healthcare it’s important to remember that this information came second hand to the LW by the patient. That’s how the patient took the instructions, not necessarily what the therapist said. Misunderstandings are very common in situations like this, a lot of times the patient hears what they want to hear. I could easily see this being in a conversation about not being sure about what name to choose and the therapist saying that they don’t have to be sure and that’s okay/normal, in the same sense that was said here, meaning they can change their mind later, and that’s fine. Then the patient takes that and runs with it because they didn’t want to make any decisions at all. And most times, it’s not even intentional misrepresentation, they just wanted so bad to not have a decision that they took whatever they had as suport for that

  14. Sea Anemone*

    I have noticed a few people criticizing the therapist. Y’all, we know exactly one thing that the therapist said that is not even a first hand quote from the therapist. That is not enough information to litigate the job the therapist is doing, and even if it were, it would be a vast overstep for OP to get involved in their employee’s medical treatment.

    I get that people have experiences that inform their opinions, but this is a time to consider whether those opinions really need to be stated.

    1. Hills to Die on*

      It’s a completely unreasonable bit of advice.
      And Alison has been clear on taking people at their word. If OP says that Friend relayed this feedback, then let’s assume it’s the case.
      It’s Friend’s therapist, not the coworkers therapist, and it’s crap advice.
      Criticizing it is appropriate.

      1. Calliope*

        Friend relayed the advice to the OP but taking someone at their word does not mean we have the whole context of the conversation or that Friend interpreted it reasonably. I find it much more likely the therapist meant to suggest choosing a very temporary nickname and being comfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing about a permanent name then I do that the therapist said “oh literally just tell people not to address you by any name at all.” That would be incompetent but seems like the least likely possibly.

        1. MEH Squared*

          Thank you for doing this work. The number of people assuming they know exactly what the therapist said (and taking said therapist to task) is astonishing.

      2. Washi*

        The thing is, I didn’t interpret this quote from the therapist as meaning “tell your work you don’t want to be called anything at all” though I guess initially Friend interpreted it that way. The request was not to rush into a name change, and I would argue that asking for a general identifier is not rushing anyone into a permanent or semi permanent name change. So OP’s company IS accommodating of this ambiguity (while still taking care of practicalities) and the therapist’s advice is working out fine.

        And quite possibly Friend described the company as progressive and open which is why the therapist thought this was worth a shot.

      3. Hiring Mgr*

        I’m confused why it’s crap advice.. It sounds like it’s what’s actually happening and working out ok thus far.

    2. Presea*

      +1. We know hardly anything about the therapist, the employee, the type or depth of the trauma, the type or depth of the trigger associated with the employee’s former name, why the therapist has recommended this course of action (I think we can assume they are acquainted enough with human customs to know that it would cause inconvenience to others to take this course of action), etc. Perhaps the therapist is competently seeing that this is a situation that calls for something radical and unusual, perhaps the therapist is a quack, but it really doesn’t matter to us, the AAM audience.

    3. Popinki(she/her)*

      Yes, I’m not going to second-guess the therapist because we don’t have all the particulars of the case and I certainly don’t have the knowledge or qualifications to comment on their advice even if we did.

    4. Observer*

      Y’all, we know exactly one thing that the therapist said that is not even a first hand quote from the therapist. That is not enough information to litigate the job the therapist is doing,

      Well, it’s true that we don’t know if the OP got accurate information from NoName. *BUT*, if the reporting was accurate, that this one thing is egregious enough that it is enough for people to draw conclusions about. Because that request (if that’s what actually happened) was problematic in a number of fundamental ways.

      it would be a vast overstep for OP to get involved in their employee’s medical treatment.

      On this, I *totally* agree. In fact, my first thought when reading what the therapist had suggested was “the therapist is an incompetent idiot, but there is nothing the OP can do about that. They are going to have to stay out of that discussion.”

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        What is it about about suggesting asking for temporary ambiguity or not rushing into picking a new name is the sign of an incompetent idiot? That’s pretty harsh

        It sounds like that’s basically what’s happening and it seems ok (so far)

        1. Person from the Resume*

          The whole gist of Alison’s response to and the comment section of the first letter was that it was unreasonable and extremely confusing to have a person refusing to go by any identifier at work. If indeed the therapist said that the office and coworkers should embrace tha ambiguity without realizing all the problems it would cause their client at work is pretty out of touch and not helpful to Friend.

        2. Observer*

          What is it about about suggesting asking for temporary ambiguity or not rushing into picking a new name is the sign of an incompetent idiot?

          No one is asking the employee to “rush into picking a name.” But a competent therapist should know that it is not reasonable or realistic to ask the employer to essentially be involved in the employee’s therapeutic work. And they should also understand that not having a reliable identifier is a real and significant problem for the workplace, even temporarily – even if the employee didn’t report all of the bits and pieces that the OP mentioned (like the employee getting upset when people didn’t handle the situation as they wanted.)

      2. River Otter*

        “Because that request (if that’s what actually happened) was problematic in a number of fundamental ways”

        But LW has been doing exactly as Friend asked, which is be understanding of ambiguity at the moment. And everybody is calling them Friend, which seems to solve the at the moment problem nicely.

        The real problem is that Friend doesn’t have an idea of when at the moment will be over, and we have zero information on what the therapist is doing on that front, so calling them an incompetent idiot is really uncalled for. You are responding to some trauma of your own and not to the actual experience of either LW or Friend.

    5. Wants Green Things*

      No one’s suggesting the OP be involved in the employee’s medical treatment – although, as written, the employee has *already* involved them through the insistence of using no name. OP wouldn’t even know about it if their employee hadn’t shared it with them. We’re just pointing out that it’s very odd advice and goes against what our experiences have been. Maybe it’s a misinterpretation, or it’s just bad advice. But it *is* odd.

    6. Gerry Keay*

      Honestly. People — many of whom I imagine are not trained therapists! — are projecting SO much of their own experience and perspectives on this story to the point where they’re arguing about a full on fantasy of what they think this therapist is doing. Seriously approaching “invent a guy and get mad at them” territory.

    7. TyphoidMary*

      Exactly. I literally interpreted it as the therapist saying, “you should give the people you work with a heads-up that this name might not be permanent,” and not, “you should expect people at work to bend to your every whim regarding your nomenclature.”

  15. Lobster*

    Same as everyone prior… I’m sure you don’t need more suggestions, but in my case, my CTO happily gifted me the email address lobster@mycompanyname.com and I’ll get to use it forever, no matter what I ask to be called at any point. It made me feel supported and cared for and celebrated, in my case.

  16. Meghan*

    I also thought of the P.U.F. when I first read the letter. I’m glad something is working out.

    1. Princess Xena*

      I must admit – I read P.U.F. and my mind went straight to ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’.

      1. Very Social*

        Hmm, I think my kid would get upset if I tried to sing “Public Universal Friend the Magic Dragon” at bedtime tonight XD

  17. NoName+Just+thoughts*

    I always learn from this site — and Public Universal Friend was a very interesting read.

    The idea of referring to someone as “Friend” at work seems like a very kind interim solution; we should all think of each other as friends.

  18. MEH Squared*

    OP, thank you for the update. You sound like a very thoughtful manager and it’s clear you care about your employee’s well-being. I hope they are able to come up with a workable compromise soon.

  19. Jess*

    It looks like I’m in the minority finding that asking to be comfortable with some ambiguity actually seems like a reasonable ask–I’m told all the time that I have to wait on a decision from a higher up, or navigate a space where there is a lot of ambiguity with a situation as it forms. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to request that a workplace do the same for a valued employee. It would be more useful if the therapist asked Friend to choose a temp term for name (someone above said Tuby Determined which I find delightful). We are in a time when workplaces have to see employees as fully realized people–and in this case have to see an employee as a person realizing themselves fully. Sometimes things take time.

    I also think that with the IT asking to use an employee number or birthdate/significant date to Friend wouldn’t be difficult, and have emails from OldName forward to the new one. It’s not like Friend isn’t going to know that they will see OldName in some iteration for probably the rest of their life/a significant amount of time.

    1. Unaccountably*

      You can ask someone to be comfortable with a certain degree of low-level ambiguity in life, yes. That’s reasonable. Being told that you have to wait on a decision from someone or deal with no one having direct answers for you can be frustrating, but every has to do those things, all the time. It becomes less reasonable when your personal journey with ambiguity tolerance leads to IT system errors, workflow impediments, and general confusion *that other people must then fix or negotiate for you.* One is learning to live in the world. The other is asking other people to manage the ambiguity that you created and then couldn’t manage on your own.

      People can complain about the bad light this puts the therapist into all they want, but no therapist on the planet is there to complicate their patients’ lives to the extent that their manager has to write in to an advice column to figure out how to deal with it. You don’t just tell your patient to do something extraordinary like this and then throw them back into the pond to deal with all the consequences with (apparently) no tools to use to smooth things out. If the situation is that much of an emergency, you put the patient in inpatient treatment or help them figure out how to negotiate a leave of absence.

      You do not just tell people to drop their identifiers and then show up at work to tell other people that you have no name now. If that’s really what the therapist said, that’s inexcusable and cruel.

    2. Observer*

      It looks like I’m in the minority finding that asking to be comfortable with some ambiguity actually seems like a reasonable ask–I’m told all the time that I have to wait on a decision from a higher up, or navigate a space where there is a lot of ambiguity with a situation as it forms.

      There is a time and place for everything. Sometimes you have to wait for things, and sometimes you have to use your best judgement based on what’s going on. But there are times when that is not good enough. The ability to identify someone is one of those cases.

      I do agree that IT should be flexible, though. And many email system will even allow you to change the address being presented to the world without having to change the mailbox itself, so it simplifies record-keeping as well. And it means that Friend can go by whatever temporary name till they choose something permanent, and not have it cause real problems.

    3. GythaOgden*

      Equally, though, if a project can’t move forward without an answer, it’s reasonable to ask for one.

      I got work feedback once while in a job selling ads for a community magazine, that I had a problem with getting payment out of clients crucial to the magazine’s cashflow survival because I was too patient with people. We were operating on a shoestring and like many small businesses who go under because of cashflow, we needed to get more assertive with our collections.

      I had to learn to be pushy but not so pushy that it pushed people away. It was VERY hard. I hate badgering people, particularly for money. (I was doing the job for other reasons but mainly because my mum told me they needed someone and ‘volunteered’ me — it was on that level of semi-pro. It was fun in many respects, kept me in pin money and gave me something to put on my CV.) We lost clients not because I was pushy, but because I was suddenly being helped with payment requests by someone who was much pushier than I was and that upset clients. We also had chronic nonpayers that we didn’t want to boot out and have to fill gaps with more editorial at the last moment, so a lot of people were taking advantage!

      So we ended up worse off for having kicked the issue too far down the road. We made it to 2020 but collapsed completely due to advertisers pulling out.

      And that was just normal business. This is dealing with the legitimate pain of a human being who has a tangle of emotional scars to make sense of. But the longer the office keeps this in abeyance for the emotional sake of the colleague, the more resentment builds up and the worse the fallout is for the colleague themselves, never mind other people.

      They need assistance to make the journey, but just like with a small magazine trying to call in payments to meet its obligations, it can’t go on forever. There’s a need to be compassionate, but there’s a point where the costs to the business — other people’s emotional considerations, the need for systems to have a moniker for this colleague in official documents, for clients to feel they are comfortable with them and not feel like they’re in an uphill battle…that’s the cost of a further delay.

      In our magazine’s case, it was several years of running on fumes and having the small business headaches of ‘will I still have a job this time next year?’ I was employed elsewhere, but our editor wasn’t, and she was devastated when we had to close simply because of cashflow. She was a SAHM, but the editorship was her intellectual exercise. So even the most abstract of business issues can have emotional consequences. This situation, while heartbreaking for the person at the centre, with whom all my sympathies lie, has to be resolved at some point before they themselves crash and burn from the way things play out as a consequence of their indecision.

  20. River Otter*

    at least for work purposes, they need to choose an identifier and that it need not be permanent

    LW, you said people have been calling them Friend. Is there a problem with “Friend” being the temporary identifier? If it’s already in use and Friend hasn’t objected, it seems like a solution has organically arisen that you could just go with.

    Unless there’s something I’m missing, I would call the temporary problem solved.

    1. quill*

      If it’s all internal use it seems solved, if Friend has to email clients it could be a little trickier.

  21. RagingADHD*

    The original letter was posted over three weeks ago. It references issues that had already come up repeatedly for weekly events. So how long has this been going on?

    Whatever the therapist meant (in the third-hand telephone-game version) of “being comfortable with ambiguity,” I cannot imagine any minimally-competent therapist thinking that is it healthy or desirable to inflict weeks and weeks or months of “drama” (quoting the original letter) on yourself and others. Especially over mundane things like friendly coworkers trying to get coffee. Or to make it functionally impossible to participate in meetings, receive work emails or task assignments. Much less forcing your supervisor to dance around trying to cover for your ambiguity with outside clients and contacts, who just need to have *some* way to reach you.

    Every therapist I’ve ever met or worked with was keenly aware of basic life practicalities and emphasized the importance of making concrete plans to cope with distressing situations. I hope this employee either processes and starts to implement that part of the work, opens up and actually tells the therapist about the practical impacts of this lingering ambiguity, or (if the non-helpfulness was in fact real) finds a therapist who doesn’t have their head up their ass.

  22. marvin the paranoid android*

    I guess I’m feeling a little spicier about this situation since the first letter came in, but I really applaud this employee for doing what they need to do for their mental health. Trans people and people with family trauma are often required to carry a heavy emotional burden for the convenience of others, so I think it’s great that this person is comfortable with asking for what they need, even if it causes some minor confusion. It’s hard to be trans in this world without causing some confusion one way or another, so we might as well do it on our own terms. I’m sending good vibes out to this person.

  23. AM*

    I really like the term “choose an identifier” because it is much less personal than a name and a reasonable ask. I’m going to keep that in mind if I ever run into this type of situation in my own life.

  24. Prof. Space Cadet*

    I missed the original thread. This is definitely an unusual situation, but kudos to the letter writer for finding a solution to the situation that worked for everyone involved! I can imagine a lot of employers being like, “Too bad! Your’e going by . End of story!”

    As a college professor, I’m filing away this example to use in the future in TA training.

  25. Hired Hacker*

    I’m sorry to hear about the coworker’s trauma, but I am surprised they thought they could successfully navigate a work environment (not to mention their social life) without having a name and without being able to be called at all. I’d be wary of other shenanigans from their part in the future.

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