Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Dropping Names [September 1]

I’m planning to post on this website some of the columns i had published in The Age newspaper several years ago. Here’s the first:
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I admit it. I’m guilty. A week ago today, I committed the crime of name-dropping. Whilst giving a speech at a conference, I deliberately, unashamedly, FLAGRANTLY informed the audience that I once shook the hand of Nelson Mandela.

I watched their reactions closely. Some smiled and nodded, obviously impressed. Others furrowed their brows in disbelief. The rest simply curled their lips. I’d lost them. Whatever pearls of wisdom I may have been planning to share with them had now been wasted, because honestly, who wants to listen to a big-noter? I tried to minimise the fall-out by following up my self-aggrandising brag with a lame joke (“haven’t washed my right hand since!”) but the damage was done.

I wasn’t surprised. I’d have felt the same way. There are few people more irritating than compulsive name-droppers. At an opening night event recently I overheard one of the guests dropping the names of her ‘good friends’ Malcolm Fraser, Xanana Gusmao and Geoffrey Rush, all in the space of about five minutes. By the time she’d finished up with a reference to her ‘very dear friend’ the Dalai Lama I was just about gagging.

But when is serial name-dropping ‘the familiar mention of famous people as a form of boasting’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary definition) and when is it simply talking about the people you know? The name-dropper at that event was a fairly well-known public figure herself so it was hardly surprising that she was mixing with other well-known people. If I mentioned her name you’d probably think I was name-dropping again.

When a person is so famous that the mere mention of their name could lead to accusations of name-dropping, do they have automatic immunity from accusations of name-dropping themselves? Or is there an unstated hierarchy of celebrity which ensures that, even if they’re pretty famous, when they talk about people more famous than themselves, they’re still bragging?

In which case, should famous people try never to mix with people more famous than themselves, for fear of dropping those famous names later in front of their other less famous friends? Or should famous people only ever mix with other famous people so that nobody feels like anyone else is big-noting, because they’re all too famous to be impressed by anyone else’s fame? The mind boggles.

But why DO so many of us love to hate a name-dropper? Sometimes it’s a simple case of envy. Perhaps we’d quite like to be mixing with the Oscar-winners ourselves and we resent the fact that someone else has had the opportunity to bathe in their reflected glory. My friend who is a friend of Cate Blanchett, for example, never EVER mentions their friendship in company for fear of inspiring exactly this kind of resentment. (Does mentioning the famous name of a friend of a friend count as name-dropping?)

Or perhaps we believe that in a world which is increasingly dominated by media images of celebrities, and where celebrity equals power, unless we can rub shoulders with the famous and the powerful we despair of ever becoming more famous or powerful than we currently are.

On the other hand, judging by our appetite for celebrity biographies, it seems readers can’t get enough of literary name-dropping. And because we’ve read about famous people in someone else’s book, we can never be accused of bragging when dropping those juicy morsels of gossip about famous people into a conversation.

One of the most famous name-droppers in English literature is the clergyman Mr Collins, from “Pride and Prejudice”. Every conversation he has involves several references to his wealthy patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Although Lady Catherine is a woman whose ‘manners are dictatorial and insolent’, Jane Austen writes, ‘the respect which (Mr Collins) felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself (and) his authority… made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility’.

In mentioning Mandela, I was clearly showing off. But I guess it can’t be called name-dropping when one national leader publicly refers to another national leader. Why, then, did I sometimes find myself thinking of Mr Collins and his beloved Lady Catherine whenever John Howard talked about his good friend George Bush?