“I would like to change my name,” I said, “as well as my sex.” How’s that for an introduction? That’s the scene from today’s visit to the Social Security Administration. Even though I knew from some hard-to-find webpage at their website that they wouldn’t change “sex” without a letter from a surgeon, I figured I’d visit my local SSA office today to change at least my name.
I arrived about 11:00 and waited in a medium-sized room filled with what appeared to be mostly people of color and age waiting to file claims or correct paperwork related to their social security benefits. The only people I would put in my obvious category (name change, not sex change) was a young woman and her mother, who sat a few rows in front of me babbling happily about being newly married and examining a checklist of places to go and offices to inform of her new name.
After waiting for perhaps 30 minutes, they called my number and a Hispanic woman opened the door to usher me into the large room containing perhaps 15 cubicles of SSA caseworkers. Diane showed me to her desk, brightly personalized with pictures of her family and artwork, asking me as I sat down, “What can I do for you?”
“I would like to change my name,” I said, “as well as my sex. Here is my court order for both, along with my form requesting for a new social security card.”
Before she began reading the court order, she looked warmly in my eyes and said, “First of all, congratulations.”
“Thanks,” I said, “That’s awfully nice of you to say, by the way.”
She smiled and read the court order softly to herself, looking briefly at my driver’s license to check that I was who I said I was. When she reached the end, just about when I expected her to say she could change my name but not my sex, she said, “OK — this won’t be any trouble.” She began keying the information from my application into her computer, pausing to complain that she simply couldn’t type today for some reason. She shredded my old social security card and printed the official change paperwork for me to examine, and sure enough, it was what I asked for.
She said I ought to be receiving my new card in a couple of weeks and then asked about my nail polish: “Is that clear or is there a little bit of color? I really like how that looks.”
“Thank you,” I said, looking at the nails and wondering where all those chips in the polish came from and thinking that it really is time for a manicure. “I think it’s a color called Bamboo and this one might be from Sally Hansen, but I’m not really sure.”
“I used to have one just like it that I wore all the time,” she offered, “but they quit making it.”
She said we were finished and wished me good luck.
Even though it was a pretty shallow conversation, it seemed to me Diane made a serious effort at humanizing the experience, making a gesture of inclusion, and the whole visit to her office — warm, friendly, and helpful — stands in contrast to the needlessly bureaucratic and officious attitude I encountered at the FAA the other day.