Don’t judge a man by his name, even if it’s ‘Millie’

Lacrosse is a contact sport. In fact, I once heard a large football player say he would never play a game where they allowed athletes to carry weapons (sticks).

Dave Millhouser

Thus it takes a measure of courage to toddle onto the field wearing a helmet with “Millie” on the back.

In ye olden days we identified our own personal helmet by writing our name on a piece of masking tape and plastering it on the back. My multi-syllabic name was too long, and was shortened to “Millie.”

This helmet was an important accessory because my sole talent was a willingness to hit people with my head. The coach said it was OK because there was nothing in there to damage. This was the 1960s and he also told me I was safe from the military draft because I didn’t have a left hand.

Having “Millie” on my helmet made me a bit of a target. Opposing players made some assumptions, and (mis)treated me accordingly.

Growing up, we’re told not to “judge a book by its cover” or make judgments based on appearance. The fact is we all do it. We use superficial traits as shortcuts in most aspects of life, and it’s not all bad. If a restaurant looks dirty, we have suspicions about the kitchen’s cleanliness.

When I was in bus sales, it was often useful (and accurate) to decide about a company’s quality based on how their coaches looked. When a fleet was clean, and relatively unblemished, you could be pretty sure it was also well maintained.

The shortcut wasn’t 100 percent accurate, but was a useful tool.

The line between prejudice and taking shortcuts to accurate evaluations is a thin one.

If you think about it, everyone (including us) that has a product to sell has some form of brand. Rolls Royce has worked hard at making us think of quality when we hear the name, while Yugo managed — the opposite.

Fair or not, people make all sorts of assumptions based on how we look, sound and act. Some things we can’t control — I’m never going to be tall. Judging people or enterprises based on things beyond their control leans towards being prejudiced.

There’s not a ton anyone can do about the uncontrollable (that’s how it got its name).

There are two sides to this. It’s important to work hard at the things you can make happen, like unblemished buses showing up on time, courteous office folks, timely responses and all that other stuff you already know.

If your image includes luxury then all the amenities have to work. If you’re selling “value” you can’t resent customers who shop around, nor can you use “price” as an excuse for poor service.

Like it or not, you have a brand. People think a certain way when they hear your name. Do everything you can to shape the way they perceive you, but don’t waste energy whining about what you can’t control or using it as an excuse.

I’m short and chubby. I’ll never be tall, but I can diet.

The other side of the coin is to learn to separate legitimate perceptual shortcuts from prejudices. One thing everyone in sales (and we’re all in sales) learns to do is qualify a customer. Are they really serious? Can they pay? We also do it with suppliers, competitors and employees.

How do you choose which superficial criteria is legitimate in making judgments, as opposed to prejudices? Perhaps the first step is to recognize that a tension exists and be open to changing your mind if reality and perception turn out to be different.

It’s reasonable to think a 5-foot, 4-inch guy isn’t a pro football player. If you’d made that assumption in Buddy Young’s case (and stuck with it) you’d have missed a huge opportunity. Look him up.

It’s OK to make a bad guess, but folly to stick with it in the face of facts.

Years ago a competitor got a call from an older gentleman who had been in the bus business all his life. A gifted mechanic, he had always run older equipment (beautifully maintained, but “experienced”). His career was winding down and he wanted to try some new coaches.

Rather than take him seriously (or at least fake it) the salesman said, “How are you going to pay for them?” He assumed that the only reason someone ran older coaches was because they couldn’t afford new.

It turns out that, for at least this gentleman, there was another reason: they were profitable. He (figuratively) took the money from under his mattress and paid cash for a different brand of coach.

As for being called “Millie,” just when things couldn’t get worse my name was badly mispronounced during a roll call in front of my “friends,” who now call me…

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at

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