The different ways we save phone contacts & what they imply Lede Landscape-100 (3)
Image: Jordan Lee

How You Save a Contact on Your Phone Reveals a Lot More Than You Think It Does

From full names only, to emojis, nicknames, and context in brackets, why do we have such complex and unique rules for the way we save contacts to our phones?

On the first day of my new job, my boss sent me a screen-recording of him editing my contact on his phone. Originally saved as “Ria potential candidate,” the video showed him backspacing the two suffixed words and changing it to “Ria (work).” I had cleared four rounds of interviews, submitted all my documentation, and signed my employee contract, but it was the change from “potential candidate” to “work” on his contact list that made me feel like I had really become part of the workplace.


The screen-recording is still saved in my photo gallery, and every few weeks, I come across it while looking for a screenshot, a meme, or the one photo of me taken six months ago where I actually look nice. I watch it sometimes, reliving the first time I saw it, noticing new details every time – such as the contact below mine which is “Riya” with a “Y,” the one name saved with an emoji next to it, the one with an expletive. It’s nosy, but it’s fun, this little peek into the personal life of a person I know only professionally, through his digital phonebook. 

If you, like me, were born before the 2000s, you will likely have vague memories of the bulky phonebook into which your parents scribbled names, addresses, and phone numbers. The phonebook was diligently maintained and only numbers deemed worthy of the limited pages were written down. The shared nature of phonebooks, maintained and used by an entire family, also meant that numbers had to be labelled with the easiest, most universal identifier, which was often a person’s full name – no emoji, cuss word, or “potential candidate.”

But my parents now each have their own phones and I have mine, and owning personal devices with vast memories comes with the freedom to save as many contacts in as personalised a way as we want. My mother has people’s numbers labelled “new” and “new house” and “Canada number,” a veritable digital history of the trajectories her friends’ lives took. My father has meticulously saved the numbers of our frequently-visited relatives with their house numbers, because many residential localities require you to give your destination address at the gate upon entry and it’s convenient to keep it handy. I have my boss’s contact saved with a computer emoji, and my boss has “NOT-potential-candidate Ria.” 


Our contact-saving practices are a digital representation of our social relationships and what we want to remember in them, and speak as much about us as they do about the people whose numbers we have saved. It is no surprise, then, that if you go through your contact list, clear patterns can be seen in your method of saving contacts.

contact info

Our contact-saving practices are a digital representation of our social relationships and what we want to remember in them, and speak as much about us as they do about the people whose numbers we have saved.

An entirely unscientific survey of my social media followers revealed that most of us follow similar rules of saving contacts, such as using nicknames or emojis for loved ones, mentioning the place we know them from (like “college”), and saving weirdos or exes with some variation of “don’t pick up,” so that there is never a chance of interaction. Full names emerged as the most common rule of thumb among people my age. 

Sukant Koul, who works with a startup, agreed, “I use full names always, with the exception of BFFs who are [saved as] first names only.” (I edited Sukant’s contact in my phone from full name to first name in 2018, when we teamed up for a debating tournament and became close friends). “My philosophy is that if I can’t identify you just from your name, then you shouldn't be in my contacts,” he added. 

A respectable philosophy, but not one that works for me. I need two to three words of context for most of my contacts because different institutions, workplaces, and the internet have brought me in touch with many more people than even my extroverted brain can handle. The average person can maintain approximately 150 relationships according to professor of evolutionary psychology Robin Dunbar, but can recall a few thousand acquaintances with the right cues  – and I need cues such as “from Twitter,” “work,” and “college first floor lab projector guy” in my contact list to make sure that I know exactly who I’m talking to. For me, a first-name-only contact is a clear declaration that our relationship is special – that they’re so deeply ingrained in my memory that no context is needed. 


For some people, full names are simply easier and methodical. Swapnil Sinha, who recently started his MBA, agreed, “It’s very sorted and efficient to save everyone as full names. I used to be a little haphazard, but I recently went back and edited all my contacts into this format, often even adding institution/workplace names as context.” 

Swapnil, whose number was originally “Swapnil Sinha IIT Delhi Quiz Club Secretary” in my phone until we became close friends and I changed it to just his first name, revealed that he has my number formally saved as “Ria Chopra,” despite almost five years of friendship. “You should be grateful I haven’t got your college name in your contact too,” he said.

I tried to persuade him to edit it to my first name only, but I failed. According to Shephali Bhatt, tech journalist, we edit our contact lists in specific cases only. “When someone sees their number saved a certain way by you and points it out, when someone becomes a close friend, and when someone becomes a significant someone,” she observed. 

But in the age of situationships and slow-dating, proclaiming someone “significant” by editing their contact name may be a step one is never sure of. Aishwarya Praveen, research analyst, told me that she was immensely bothered when she saw that her to-be husband still had her number saved with the suffix “Alliance,” referencing that they’d met via an arranged marriage set-up. While that’s a little extreme, I have full empathy for Aishwarya’s husband, because I often avoid DTRs (that’s Define the Relationship) – and there is no bigger “what are we” reckoning than editing a contact from full to first name. 


Salil Ahuja, policy consultant, had been my acquaintance for over four years before we grew close during the pandemic. But his name stayed saved as his full name on my phone – something that bothered him for months before he finally brought it up, and I finally changed it to his first name only. “I felt that our relationship was growing,” he said, “And if our relationship changes, it makes sense to also change how you represent it in our primary mode of communication.” 

This complex labyrinth of naming and renaming becomes even more convoluted when the romance is on the internet. Rega Jha, writer and editor, shared with me one of her Instagram stories captioned: “Just sending love to all the people whose names are saved in my phone as “<Firstname> Bumble,” who I flirted with for 3.5 days and then forgot about… Sending maximum love to those people on whose phones MY surname is “Bumble,” and who, when they come across that contact four months later, will be like “who the f…” and delete it.” 

The sentiment is echoed by social media manager Manas Barpande, who has developed an even more efficient system of suffixing his online dating-app matches’ contact names with H (for Hinge) and T (for Tinder). Impersonality and interaction thus coexist in the contacts from dating apps, something I saw first-hand in college when my closest friend Yashika Choudhary hilariously matched with two men named Rohan at the same time on a dating app and promptly saved their numbers as “Rohan 1” and “Rohan 2.” Yashika explained the deeply puzzling (to me) logic behind her decision: “The dating app didn’t have their full names, and I felt that the numbers were probably temporarily saved anyway. I was speaking to ‘Rohan 1’ more, so he took the priority spot.”

contact info

It is no surprise, then, that if you go through your contact list, clear patterns can be seen in your method of saving contacts.

Even the non-romantic internet comes with its share of intricacies, as people often go by usernames that are different from their real names. I reached out to Ankita Chawla, whose number in my phone is saved as “Ankita Chawla Hustlerani (from Instagram),” referencing both the platform that I met her on, and the moniker with which she has built a following of over 120,000. Chawla, who is a marketing consultant and content creator, acknowledged that she has my number saved as “Riachops” (my username) too, and that this comes with the territory of having a social media presence. “It’s always a little humbling to see that my internet persona is what you know me as,” she said. 

For Chawla, saving contacts is an efficient exercise given the fast-paced nature of her work, but like many of us, she likes to add emojis or personal touches to loved ones’ names. “Much like we set our own wallpapers to our phones – representing something for ourselves, adding a personal touch to our utility device – these emojis are purely for my own joy," she told me. Interestingly, she added that in her line of work, she is aware that contacts are often forwarded to clients or collaborators without you being part of the interaction. For ease of business, she has saved her manager’s number as “<Name> Ankita Chawla's Manager,” to ensure that whosoever forwards, receives, or saves this contact, has the entire context.

contact info

"I need two to three words of context for most of my contacts because different institutions, workplaces, and the internet have brought me in touch with many more people than even my extroverted brain can handle."

As we’ve started heavily using our phones for work, using their features in this way to foster business relationships is unavoidable. Professor Mangesh Borse, retired professor of marketing at Mumbai’s Welingkar Institute of Management Development & Research, shared a tip he gave his students: “While saving business contacts, I always add the names of their children, or pets, or other loved ones, as a reminder to ask them how <loved one> is at the end of the call. Everyone loves when you remember little details about them!”

Our generation is adept at optimising technology to suit our emotional needs. Many people save their most important contacts with the letter “A” prefixed, followed by their name, so that they appear first in the alphabetical phonebook. But Prachi Sharma, student, used the opposite method to forget her ex. “The first three letters of my ex’s name were the same as my brother’s and friend’s, and whenever I looked up their numbers, my ex’s contact would show up. Finally I changed his contact name to ‘ZZZ’ and started feeling so much better, not seeing his name always,” she said. 

Moving on is iffy business in the digital world – involving photo deletions, changing Instagram bios, and more – and involves dealing with a graveyard of byte-sized memories. When Shubhi Surana, editor, shared a screenshot of her contact list with me where various names were saved with their associations to her best friend, with “<Friend> New York,” “<Friend>’s Driver,” and even “<Friend>’s Bhabhi,” all marking their friendship of over ten years, I thought of my own contact list that still has the numbers of the parents and siblings of people who used to be important to me. I’ve let them stay – a conscious choice to not delete these easily deletable memories – as a way of chronicling the relationships that once were.


Do we ever violate our own rules or change them? Aritro Sarkar, a student, has recently started changing his habit of strictly saving contacts as full names. “I'm trying not to ask people for surnames, because it can look like I’m needlessly aggressive or asking for a caste identifier,” he said. Meanwhile Shreya Punj, book editor, describes herself as “chaotic” in contact-saving before the age of 25, but says she has now “realised the importance of extreme organisation,” and thus now saves contacts with full names. “Oldies have slow brains, I guess,” she joked. 

The first mainstream handheld cellular mobile phone was introduced by Motorola in 1973, and half a century later, we can’t imagine life without our little screens. You’re probably reading this essay on yours right now (and I wrote most of it on mine). And with the possibility of infinite personalisation they give us, we have all created our own personal rules for saving our contacts. But across ages, professions, and social backgrounds, all we really want is to accurately represent our relationships, and to make sure that we can always quickly and easily find the people we want to contact. Analogously, we’ve found a way to document the temporary, unique, and often absurd connections we make in our ever-broadening worlds, too. 

contact info

The devil – and kind angel – is in the details

If you were to scroll through my phonebook, you’d find people labelled “never pick” coexisting with those saved as nicknames I haven't uttered in years, names of multiple educational institutions and workplaces tracing my life’s journey, and full names and first names telling a story of relationships formed and strengthened. 


I’d recommend that you take a minute to go through your contact list too, observe your own rules, and re-read all the names you considered important enough to save. And those few special emoji-saved ones that you haven’t spoken to in a while…? Give them a call.

Ridiculous contact names examples:

  • Somebody who called twice but didn’t pick up when call back: Self explanatory – Rhythm Gupta, entrepreneur

Contact info


  • The girl who was about to buy me a shot but didn’t: “A batchmate lost a bet to me and had to buy me shots, but needed to leave.” – Shvabh Chakarwarti, lawyer

  • Dexter Golden Retriever 917 Flat: “Dexter was their dog, I never got to know the owner’s name.” – Laavanya Tamang, policy researcher
  • Chandigarh Cutie: “A stranger I once hooked up with in Chandigarh” – Divya N, publicist
  • Bat Man and Iron Man: “The bat infestation control worker and the man who irons my clothes.” – Hruthika Charan, B2B marketer
  • Crispy Handshake: “I was drunk at a college party and this guy kept on giving limp handshakes, so I told him to give me a crispy one.” – Sanah Singh, law student
  • Sandeep Car Crash Guy: “Someone who crashed his scooter into my car and gave me his number to share the repair bill.” – Isha Kulkarni, energy professional
  • Dharam Sankat: “Translates to moral dilemma, for someone I wasn’t sure if I should date or not.” – Manas Barpande, social media manager
  • Excited Second Year Never Pick Up: “A junior who called me once for advice and then spoke for an hour.” – Apala Mandal, Master’s student
  • Sobo Paris Guy You Met On Marine Drive: “I know we might never cross paths again, and it’s just a good anecdote to recall.” - Saloni Mittal, freelancer
  • Guy who thinks this is fucking Looking for Alaska: “Dated someone in college who cheated on me, then gave me a long impassioned speech on how “we belong together” because we’re both fucked up. Shortly after the breakup, I switched phones and had the chance to rename their number, and because we’d gotten close when I was in my teenage John Green phase… this.” – Nikita, student
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