From dating to job prospects, a name has remarkable power over the path of its owner’s life.
I was at a party for Bastille Day in Paris a few years back, and we were leaning over the balcony to watch the fireworks. A cute French girl sat next to me, but after a few flirty glances the moment was entirely ruined with the most basic of interactions: “What’s your name?” she asked in French. “Cody,” I said.
That was it. We were done. “Co-zee?” she said, sounding out the entirely foreign name, looking more disgruntled with each try. “Col-bee?” “Cot-ee?”
I tried a quick correction, but I probably should’ve just lied, said my name was Thomas or Pierre like I did whenever I ordered take-away or made restaurant reservations. Not being able to pronounce a name spells a death sentence for relationships. That’s because the ability to pronounce someone’s name is directly related to how close you feel to that person. Our brains tend to believe that if something is difficult to understand, it must also be high-risk.
In fact, companies with names that are simple and easy to pronounce see significantly higher investments than more complexly named stocks, especially just after their initial public offerings when information on the stock’s fundamentals are most scarce. People with easier to pronounce names are also judged more positively and tend to be hired and promoted more often than their more obscurely named peers.
There are more variables at play than just pronunciation, though. In competitive fields that have classically been dominated by men, such as law and engineering, women with sexually ambiguous names tend to be more successful. This effect is known as the Portia Hypothesis (named for the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice who disguises herself as a lawyer’s apprentice and takes on the name Balthazar to save the titular merchant, Antonio). A study found that female lawyers with more masculine names—such as Barney, Dale, Leslie, Jan, and Rudell—tend to have better chances of winning judgeships than their more effeminately named female peers. All else being equal, changing a candidate’s name from Sue to Cameron tripled a candidate’s likelihood of becoming a judge; a change from Sue to Bruce quintupled it.
Names work hard: They can affect who gets into elite schools, what jobs we apply for, and who gets hired. Our names can even influence what cities we live in, who we befriend, and what products we buy since, we’re attracted to things and places that share similarities to our names.
A name is, after all, perhaps the most important identifier of a person. Most decisions are made in about three to four seconds of meeting someone, and this “thin-slicing” is surprisingly accurate. Something as packed full of clues as a name tends to lead to all sorts of assumptions and expectations about a person, often before any face-to-face interaction has taken place. A first name can imply race, age, socioeconomic status, and sometimes religion, so it’s an easy—or lazy—way to judge someone’s background, character, and intelligence.
These judgments can start as early as primary school. Teachers tend to hold lower expectationsfor students with typically black-sounding names while they set high expectations for students with typically white- and Asian-sounding names. And this early assessment of students’ abilities could influence students’ expectations for themselves.
On this year’s French baccalaureate, an exam that determines university placement for high school students, test-takers named Thomas (for boys) and Marie (for girls) tended to score highest. These are, you will note, typically white, French, middle- or upper-class names. One could imagine these students were given the advantage of high expectations and self-perception, whether or not they had the money and support that comes with the socioeconomic background associated with those names.
People change their names for different reasons. Angelina Voight became Jolie to estrange herself from her father and Natalie Hershlag became Portman to maintain her family’s privacy. The inclusion of a middle initial in formal correspondence is a strong identifier of intelligence (even though the New York Times claims it’s a dying trend). But what if parents from disadvantaged circumstances gave their children “advantaged” names? Could just a name really have that great of an effect on a person’s career and future?
A 2004 study showed that all else being equal, employers selected candidates with names like Emily Walsh and Greg Baker for callbacks almost 50 percent more often than candidates with names like Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones. Work experience was controlled and the candidates never met face-to-face with the employer so all that was being tested was the effect of the candidate’s name. The researchers concluded that there was a great advantage to having a white-sounding name, so much so that having a white-sounding name is worth about eight years of work experience. “Jamal” would have to work in an industry for eight years longer than “Greg” for them to have equal chances of being hired, even if Jamal came from a privileged background and Greg from an underprivileged one. (Perhaps that’s why mega-celebrities can get away with giving their children peculiar names. A résumé with the name North West probably wouldn’t do as well as James Williamson—unless Papa Kanye called up the boss.)
After the girl at the party had so much trouble saying my name, I asked what her name was. “Edwige,” she said. It’s a lovely name, very French, but it is also pronounced the exact same way as “Hedwige,” which just so happens to be the French version of Hedwig, the owl in Harry Potter. “Don’t make fun,” she said, and I didn’t. But neither did we talk very much for the rest of the night. But still, I wonder what would’ve happened if I had been a Pierre and she a Marion. Perhaps we would’ve gotten along quite well that night, perhaps we would’ve quickly trusted each other. Perhaps I’d have a date this weekend.
© 2014 Cody C. Delistraty, as first published by The Atlantic.
Incredibly insightful, particularly for someone with a name that’s a bit off the beaten path. Really a thorough, fantastically executed piece. Thanks for writing!
Reblogged this on lulrichmmsp125 and commented:
I agree with this article and still wonder why do parents name their children after cars and alcohol beverages.
Reblogged this on Ms. Contrarian .
I’ve thought about changing my name for a while now. I’ve had first hand experience with it how names can affect our lives. My younger sister’s name is Britny and I’m Tiffany. We are both blonde but we’re older than the Wayans brothers movie lol. People have assumed we are dog carrying fashionable stuck up vain ditzy lazy spoiled princesses. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve had a difficult time getting ahead and am convinced I should change my name to do so.. I’ve even been asked “Where are your parents?” I’m almost 30 and was emancipated at a young age. I do look young but not that young.
As someone with a complicated name, this depresses me lol. Anyways, it’s very educational. Now I know if I don’t get a place in an Uni or in a job even after trying my best the reason will probably be the name. Also, this bias towards simple white names seems like white supremacy at play (I am not biased towards any race incase it comes off wrong)
Interesting! I changed my first name in high school from a very common name to Akire. I’d never much liked my given name, but the real issue was that I was really tired of turning around after hearing my name, only to almost always discover I wasn’t the one being spoken to. People have a hard time remembering my name now, but they remember that it’s something interesting. The reaction I get after introducing myself is almost always, “wow, that’s beautiful!” even though it usually takes a few more tries before they get it right. I’ve also had people react in surprise to see my ethnicity when they meet me after first just hearing or reading my name. If that has affected my chances adversely, it’s nothing compared to what a lot of folks have to deal with every single day.
My experience, really, is that it’s a point of interest for people. They want a good story to go with it. And regardless of whether or not I tell them my story, they seem to think it makes me interesting. As someone who is a bit reserved around strangers, it gives us something to talk about – an ice breaker. I do have a few people I’ve known for years who continually mispronounce it, but I just let it go. I figure that just comes with the territory.
Reblogged this on be yourself – be art and commented:
Da bin ich froh ne so leichten Namen wie Anna zu haben 😀
Sorry I forgott to write it in english:D It meant that I’m happy to have such an easy name as Anna:)
That is scary research – shows what a sexist world we still live in
Really enjoyed reading this!
Interesting look at the psychology and cultural significance a name may have! Interestingly enough on the day which I first read this blog post, I was involved in an incident involving the mispronunciation of my rather unusual name (Mariko) in a coffee shop as ‘Burrito’ (yes like the Mexican food)
Blog post on it is here, discussed what you mentioned in this post in some depth 🙂 http://10000milegirl.com/2015/02/26/the-burrito-incident/
Oh goodness, that’s an unfortunate mix-up. I’ll be happy to read your post.
Pingback: Names, coffee and self acceptance | 10000milegirl
This post is very relatable. I recently met someone from Tinder. Yes, Tinder. When we first met he didn’t bother asking how to pronounce my name. It was a dry meeting, more about probing questions, a little bit more about hi and hello’s. Then the 3rd meeting, cause I invited him to a cross country ride, that’s when he asked how to pronounce my name. It felt as if now he’s really paying attention to me. Nothing romantic or anything between us though. I’m big with names. I even cringe when a barista gets my name wrong. I try to remember names as much as I could and since he’s Slovak, name sounded totally different from what I’m used to so I get to pronounce it and say it the way it should be said.
So, yeah, sometimes names do have an effect on your life. Even in literature. Female writers used pen names that were male sounding and had more sales or increased readers in return.
Pingback: The Surprising Ways Your Name Affects Your Life | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.
Uh oh. My name is Michaela and I live in Finland, where they don’t have the sound for ‘ch’ so I always end up being called something weird. Then I have about 7678 nicknames and I can’t decide which one to use, which one I like… It’s just a name, but there is a lot about it 🙂
Reblogged this on Chosen.
Reblogged this on Chosen.
Hi there! I’m nominating you for the Liebster Award! http://julianamare.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/liebster-award/
I had a friend of mine mispronounce my name for the entire two years we knew each other. We were actually quite close. But he could not wrap his tongue around my name. There are some sounds that just don’t exist in some languages. ^_^ That’s okay though, we got beyond it.
Come to think of it, he wasn’t the only one. It happens a lot. I get used to it. I have quite a few international friends and I mangle their names too. There are some sounds that don’t exist in English either.
It’s not necessarily a death kneel, merely a stumbling block.
Is there scientific documentation to back this up? I, for one, would not feel less close to a person simply because I cannot pronounce their name without a few attempts to get it right. After all, as Shakespeare said, “Its only a name.”
yes, kindly click through the various links in the article to see the scholarly documentation.