Research shows that how we feel about our given name is an intersection of culture and our own self-acceptance.
Our names, like the way we look, share a few social functions. Even if we try to treat people without judgement based on looks and name, we can’t help it. In order to navigate our social circles, we have to make some assumptions about people. And that’s OK. Let me explain: if an adult is introduced to a 6 year old, the grown up probably won’t bring up the subject of the stock market to strike a conversation. If we meet someone named Muhammad, we will have an inkling about this person’s religion. A single word has the power to shape our conversation and ideas about the person. Chances are, we’ll refrain from offering Muhammad alcohol.
We carry our given names and their implications everyday. Whether we like it or not, our world interacts with it too. It’s no surprise then, that our wellbeing and names are correlated. How we feel about our name and how others view it affect us.
Studies that attempt to understand names and how they impact us look at a name’s social and personal relevance. On a personal level, we have an opinion about our own names. Our self-perception and how we feel about our name correlates with self satisfaction and psychological wellbeing. The more we like our names, the higher the self satisfaction. It’s unclear from research, however, if our name shapes how we feel about ourselves, or how we feel about ourselves shapes the way we value our name. Meaning, we can’t establish causation.
Personally, I lean towards the latter. How we feel about who we are will dictate how we embrace our name. As a kid, I hated my name. This also was the time when I felt insecure and unhappy. But as I learned to love myself, loving my name naturally followed. It’s not the moniker that matters, but what you make of it.
The social aspect of a name looks at a name’s uniqueness and desirability. Society has a general idea about certain names. Adolf represents negative and the name Christian is good. This in turn affects how society treats the people with these names.
Treatment based on names extends beyond casual social gathering. Names affect our career and opportunities. When it comes to resumes, non-white sounding names don’t get as much feedback as their white counterparts. Diana Gerderman from the Harvard Business School notes that “companies are more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit whitened resumes than candidates who reveal their race—and this discriminatory practice is just as strong for businesses that claim to value diversity as those that don’t”.
Studies also show that people with “less warm or moral” names are more likely to be convicted of crimes.
Beyond Race and Ethnicity
How we deal with people based on their names, however, transcend race and ethnicity. Names that sound sonorant such as Amanda generate more positive reactions compared to Becky.
Moreover, having a unique name can provide a greater sense of individuality, such as Billie Eilish or LeBron.
What can we learn from research on names, society, and self-perception?
Using what we know about names to help us navigate conversations might be useful, but it can also distract us from getting to know people.
Learn to love your name. Have you tried keeping track of how feel about your name? On days when you feel good about yourself or feel accomplished, are you more likely to feel positively about your name?
Figure out where you stand between social acceptance and personal satisfaction. We know from research that something as personal as a name has social implications. It’s understandable to want to fit in, but which decisions are based on social acceptance at the expenese of personal satisfaction? Whether you’re choosing a name for your child or thinking of changing your own name, know the line between you and society.
The More You Know
In the US, parents can name a child anything they choose. This is not the case in other counties, however.