Last summer, I was invited to a fancy conference with lots of smart people. Many of them were writers and editors at top publications—the kinds of people whose careers I hoped to emulate.
At age 22, with less than a year of work experience, I was self-conscious about how little I’d accomplished by comparison. But I was also determined to search for networking opportunities, fantasizing that one of these editorial elite would be so impressed with my quick wit and intellect that they’d take me on as a protégé.
I soon found myself falling into an embarrassing pattern. Intimidated and eager to establish some kind of connection, I’d resort to name-dropping. But in so doing, I inadvertently revealed my own insecurities—exactly what I hoped to disguise.
One instance stands out. Standing on the sidelines of a cocktail party, I found myself next to a kind-looking man. We soon got to chatting, and I discovered that he was an executive editor at a publication I loved. Without thinking, I then told him my “friend,” a fairly big-name columnist, had recommended his writing to me—we regularly exchanged articles. “That’s awesome,” he said, mildly impressed.
A day later, I ran into the editor again. By chance, he’d spoken with the columnist I’d name-dropped and mentioned meeting me over cocktails. But the columnist was confused: She didn’t remember my name.
My exaggeration—in truth, the columnist was an acquaintance with whom I’d shared a link or two via email—was embarrassingly exposed. He gave me a pat on the back, confirming my rookie mistake. I hurried to the bathroom and had a minor freak out.
Most of us can probably recall at least one time when an attempt at name-dropping has gone horribly awry. Indeed, in a competitive job market where connections are everything, it can seem unavoidable. But according to psychologists, this effort to impress almost always backfires.
Why we name drop
People name-drop for a simple reason: It’s an easy way to signal our status as a member of an exclusive in-group. “An individual can look good to others and boost his or her own self-esteem by associating with powerful people,” says University of Georgia psychology professor W. Keith Campbell, an expert on narcissism and the author of The Narcissism Epidemic.
Some people who name-drop are narcissistic, says Campbell, as they’re more inclined to believe they are “unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions),” as per the DSM-IV definition of narcissistic personality disorder.
But the desire to name-drop most often comes from low self-esteem. “Name-dropping usually comes from a person who is uncomfortable, anxious, and doubting their own contribution to the situation,” says Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done.
When we’re interacting with powerful people, we often compare our accomplishments to theirs and feel we come up short. To cope, we try to bring up our association with someone we think the powerful person will respect.
This tendency can be particularly damaging in large organizations, says Davey, when people name-drop the CEO in order to make their co-workers do something they don’t have the facts or information to actually justify. Recently, working with one of the world’s largest banks, Davey heard many employees explain their decisions by saying, “The CEO said she wanted this, so we have to do it.” But the CEO later confirmed that each of these “name drops” was false, and inconsistent with her real desires.
Ultimately, Davey says, name-dropping “always reveals the same thing, which is that one doesn’t feel their accomplishments, or personal brand, speaks for itself, so they try to heighten their brand by associating with one that’s much stronger.”
Does it work?
Here’s the really bad news: “Name dropping is absolutely terrible for our credibility,” says Davey. When we name-drop, no matter how smoothly we try to insert another person’s name in the conversation, the listener almost always sees through the act. Interjecting another person’s name is distracting, and it also leaves the listener questioning why you’re so hesitant to just talk about yourself. One study (paywall) found that when someone name-drops to assert their closeness to a powerful person, they’re perceived both as less competent and as manipulative.
Worse, the more powerful the person you’re talking to is, the more likely they are to recognize your anxiety. “At that moment, it’s likely your credibility will go down a few notches for them,” says Davey. If you truly belong to an in-group, after all, you don’t need to go around boasting about your membership in it. So by associating with someone who is an “insider,” you inadvertently confirm the outside status you seek to obscure.
There’s another risk involved in name-dropping: “You have no idea what that person thinks about the other person you mentioned,” says Davey. Perhaps you’ve just invoked the guy who bullied a CEO back in high school, or a former employee with whom there’s been an awkward falling-out. “There’s no better way to get in a very awkward situation than mentioning someone that person doesn’t know, like, or respect.”
Of course, sometimes people name-drop simply because they’re trying to establish connections they really do have in common. But even if your motivations are truly egoless, it’s impossible to control others’ perceptions—which means even innocent name-drops can be dangerous.
What to do instead
Instead of name-dropping a third party, experts suggest you simply focus on talking about yourself and your conversational partner. If you start to feel self-conscious, one sure-fire way to deflect anxiety is to ask a question.
“Ask them something deferential,” says Davey, “for example, ‘You’re leading one of the most important projects in the company, can you tell me a bit more about your vision?'” Such experience-based questions easily dissolve intimidation, she explains. “By actually getting the other person talking about themselves you’ll create connection between the two of you, instead of throwing in the red herring of a third person.”
If you’re worried the person you’re speaking with doesn’t know you’re competent, it’s best to draw on your own qualifications. “Instead of talking about who you know or who you’ve worked with in the past, talk about the project or role you’re interested in itself,” says Davey. Be sure to describe what you contributed or accomplished, how this experience relates to the work your listener is invested in, and what specific knowledge you’ll apply if working with them. Describing past experiences may also lead your listener to name drop—”Oh you worked in IT, do you know Jill?”—an ideal place to be in, as you can reference contacts without artificially imposing them.
A year after that fateful party, I know that the chance to talk to a person I admire should be seen as an opportunity—not a threat. So the next time I find myself star-struck at the cocktail bar, I’ll ask a simple question: “How did your career get started? I really admire your success.” When you look up to someone, there’s no shame in admitting it to them—and to yourself.