What Does a Name Communicate? – Volumes

name badgeSo what’s in a name – other than it’s everyone’s personal favorite word – ?  Much more than you probably realize.  Although names are just a string of unrelated letters and sounds (which makes some names very hard to remember, to pronounce, or to spell correctly) they usually carry a very personal meaning to the owner, as the person’s very identity is wrapped up in their name.  These intangible letter groupings also carry internal communication to the listener, if they know other people bearing the same name, and associate some degree of positive or negative feelings from the other person with the same name to this new person.

When we meet someone for the first time the name is meaningless until it is attached to something memorable.  That’s why it’s often hard to remember people’s unusual names, because the word itself does not usually identify with a known object – you can’t picture an “Ashei” (male? female? how is it even pronounced?), so the remembering of that string of letters is a straight function of rote memory.  As you may recall from learning your multiplication tables in grade school, it takes many repeated attempts to lock data into long-term memory.  Common names are easier to remember because the sound is familiar to us.

Our formal name was given to us by our parents – sometimes in tribute to someone special, sometimes without a lot of forethought simply because the name was liked or sounded good.  Regardless of how it came to be, your name is a big part of your identity and not to be trifled with.

We named one of our daughters “Kelani” which was different but not strange and felt like a great choice at the time.  Unfortunately her name is often mispronounced, and so she came to dislike her formal name when she was young.  If only I had thought to add an “e” on her birth certificate… what a difference one letter would have made!  Now as an adult, pronouncing her name correctly is a good indicator of those who really know her versus the pretenders.  Why do parents inadvertently make their children’s lives harder than they need to be, with a cutesy spelling or a hard to pronounce moniker?

Names can often carry an association that transfers unconsciously to the person.  These associations, some positive and some negative, have very real repercussions for the bearers.  The Berthas and Dolores of the world are subjected to lower grades by teachers for the exact same work, while the opposite happens to the lucky Rebeccas and Abigails.   This is also true regarding prison sentences, judging beauty pageants, and hiring.  We just like certain people more, and when that person is a relative stranger, names have a distinct bearing on likability.  Name associations communicate much, whether warranted or not.  (“We can’t name the baby Nelson because I had a crazy uncle named Nelson!”)

Is “Tyler” a male or a female?  Is it spelled Jane, Jayne, Jain, or Jaine? (not as plain a matter as it initially appears!)  Or how about Katherine, Kathryn, Kathrine, Catherine, Cathryn, Cathrine?  Yikes – so many possibilities for the same name – how can someone possibly get it right?  Is it important to try to get it right, or should you just let it go?  Absolutely, make the effort to get the name right, as getting it wrong speaks volumes about your lack of caring and respect for the individual, that can be considered offensive (or at the very least a black mark against you).  Just ask the person how they spell or pronounce their name and they will proudly tell you.

My favorite name story is my own dear mother-in-law, who I met as ‘the girlfriend’ when I was 18 years old.  Of course back then she was “Mrs. Martin”.  But before two birthdays had passed, I also was Mrs. Martin and she was — untitled.  My own mother was “Mom”, and “Mrs. Martin” just felt too formal.  And as a mere 19-year-old I simply couldn’t call her, or any adult a generation older than me, by her first name.   Since she didn’t know or think to address the naming issue, the ‘problem’ remained unspoken through three decades, continuing to this day.  I still look at her to talk with her, or I physically touch her to get her attention, and I refer to her in conversation as “Michael’s mother”.  This is a bad habit that should never have formed; the responsibility lies with the older adult to tell the younger person what they would like to be called.  I took steps with my own children’s spouses to correct this way before the marriages happened.

I landed on a good website recently and I would tell you about it but I just can’t remember the name… all I remember is that it had something to do with the product (books) and was very clever.  But how important is it to be clever when you’re not memorable?  The straightforward name would get the referral and the repeat visit.

COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY:  Names are very important, especially for building strong rapport.  When selecting a name for a child, a business, a website, etc. remember that fluency is important for memory retention.  We have so much data in the world to process that remembering an offbeat or clever name just challenges our brains.  Yes, clever names can be quite memorable, but you risk 2/3s of the people not getting the cleverness right away.  The straightforward name is a never miss.  Save the cleverness for a headline or punchy slogan but keep the name easy.

QUESTION:  Does it bother you at all when kids call adults by their first name?  Do you consider this disrespectful …or a desired trait of your youthful informality?

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