The Compartments of My Social Life

I do not really understand why, but I really like splitting my social life into separate, distinct compartments.

A lot of people who use the internet use multiple pseudonyms, and use different pseudonyms for different purposes. However, I rarely meet people who go by multiple names in their offline lives.
I do.

Specifically, I go by two three four different names offline. The division I use is very pragmatic – when I expect to interact with a group of people in such a way that they will have to see my legal documents, I will introduce myself with my legal first name, and as that they call me that. If I expect to interact with a group of people on a primarily personal basis, I usually (but do not always) introduce myself as ‘Sara’ (the very same name I use on this blog).

I have no interest in changing my legal first name. The purpose of my legal first name is to be my legal first name, the purpose of my personal name is to be my personal name.

Of course, this does not always break down so neatly. Sometimes, even when I am introducing myself on a personal basis, I use my legal first name instead of ‘Sara’ – and I don’t always know why. Furthermore, there have been times when, even when I was dealing with people on a professional/official basis in Taiwan, I ended up being called ‘Sara’ anyway, even though that was not the first name listed on my official documents, because Taiwanese people find ‘Sara’ easier to pronounce than my legal first name.

And that brings me to the third name I answer to offline – my Chinese name, Zhēn​zhū​ (pronounced ‘jenju’). I have not had so much use for my Chinese name – partially because most Chinese speakers find ‘Sara’ easy enough to pronounce – but a few people prefer to refer to me by my Chinese name, so that it yet another name I answer to in offline life.

The fourth name is my trail name. In the United States, long-distance hikers tend to introduce and refer to each other by ‘trail names’ rather than their legal names. Many hikers like to separate their lives on trail from their lives off trail, and having separate names is a way to do that. I’ve read about hikers experiencing shock when they get off trail and have to start answering to their legal names again.

This leads to the problem of people who know me by one name eventually learning that I answer to a different name. It’s never been an issue with my Chinese name, since nobody expects my Chinese name to be the only name I answer to, and it’s understood that hikers have names other than their trail names, but with my other two names … oh boy. It’s sometimes hilarious, but always awkward.

And since I only have one email account, I have to use it for all of my social compartments, which is why the name I use for my email account includes both my legal first name and ‘Sara’.

Sometimes, I like it when different compartments of my life come together. Sometimes, I really dislike it, mainly because I feel like the compartments are breaking down. I do not understand why I sometimes dislike this.

So far, I’ve just been talking about my offline social life. I answer to more than three pseudonyms online. Maintaining distinct compartments is much easier online, and even when different compartments come together, people are generally much more understanding of having multiple names online than of having multiple names offline.

One might think that my various different names represent different identities, but that is not how I see it. I am always who I am. For example, I am always asexual, even when I’m not publicly declaring it. To me, different names represent different masks I use for different social situations, not as an indication that I myself am any different as a person.

Maybe I dislike it when my compartments break down because, just because I am ready to show a certain group of people one of my masks does not mean I am ready to show them a different mask, and I want to control the process of how people learn about my various masks.

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4 thoughts on “The Compartments of My Social Life

  1. You happened to post this right at a time where I have been thinking about different having different masks a LOT lately! I also go by multiple names and try to compartmentalize things like that. In my case, it’s incredibly frustrating to always have to keep things so separate, to always be wearing a mask, but at the same time, taking off the mask generally involves exposing (metaphorical) scars. I can cover over those scars with cosmetics (which is really a different kind of mask), but they’ll still be visible, just minimized. Some people will not be looking for them and will not notice, but I never know whether I can fully trust people. I know there are a lot of people who aren’t trustworthy, and who will poke around trying to find weaknesses to exploit. So taking off a mask by revealing another name I go by, especially this one, always leaves me feeling incredibly vulnerable and anxious. It isn’t nearly as bad to reveal other names I go by, but it’s still awkward and makes me anxious.

  2. I also have a different first name from my official first name. I always thought it was a pain and slightly embarrassing, but you made me think that it could be a nice thing, a feature not a bug… Many Chinese speakers seem comfortable using multiple names anyway, so maybe I can learn from them too. And I agree it’s possible not to conflate our different masks with the person behind them.

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