Don't call me that! Why nicknames can drive us crazy

by Margo White / 25 August, 2017

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it turns out.

I can’t remember exactly when I became aware that my first name was unusual, but I do remember thinking that girls called Karen, Lisa, Katie and Michelle were generally the prettiest in the class and the most popular – they were yet to be displaced by Olivia, Emily, Emma and Charlotte.

I also had a double-barrelled surname – before double-barrelled surnames were a dime-a-dozen, and when they were still often perceived as an indicator of social aspiration. We weren’t a socially aspiring family, and certainly not posh, but I did wonder if some of the nuns who taught me thought that someone with a name like mine needed to be cut down to size.

Well, one or two of them certainly seemed to make a habit of bellowing out my name over the loudspeaker or at assembly in rebuke, usually for talking when I wasn’t supposed to be talking. Sometimes when I wasn’t even talking. Of course, it might have been the sharp-sounding consonants of my name that invited rebuke. Or maybe I really did talk too much...

I dropped the middle barrel when I became a journalist, because a double-barrelled surname can make things complicated when your job involves introducing yourself to strangers all the time. (Me: “It’s Margo Beamish-White from...” Them: “What?”)

There were only two of us with the same first name in my high school, both of us in the same year. The other one was pretty and popular and it was nice to have her around; I’m sure she helped normalise our unusual first name. But apparently I was almost called Elizabeth, and I used to think (and sometimes still do) that if I’d grown up as Beth or Becky or Liz, things would have been different. If I’d been Liz, I might have been a cooler kid! My own name could never be shortened to something cute like Liz – some called me “Marj” for a time, which sounds like an unsaturated fat.

“I cannot recall a time when I haven’t registered a susurrus of amusement on announcing my name,” notes the writer, Will Self, in a BBC podcast in which he considers whether his name shaped him as an egotist – think of his name in reverse order and you can see the problem. At primary school, he remembers kids gathering around him in a ring and chanting “Self-ish! Self-ish!”, but as an adult he’s inured to the mirth his name provokes. And if his name has shaped him in any way, it’s only in making him alert to the funny side of other people’s names. “In our household, the utterly blameless and perfectly continent philosopher Alain de Botton is always referred to as Alain de Bum-Bum.”

“What’s in a name?” wrote Shakespeare. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In an ideal world, yes, but a lot of research has shown that our names signal information about who we are, which can in turn shape who we become. In an influential 1948 study, researchers looked at 3300 men who had recently graduated and found those with unusual names were more likely to have dropped out and show signs of psychological neurosis than those with more common ones. A rare name, the researchers concluded, had a detrimental psychological effect on its bearer.

Poet Philip Larkin might be more appropriate than Shakespeare: “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad/They may not mean to, but they do.” 

Since then, numerous studies have shown that our name can influence where we live, who we marry, our choice of profession, how well we do at school or in our chosen profession – there’s even a study showing that if the first letter of our name matches that of a hurricane’s name, we’re more likely to donate to disaster relief after it hits. This is often put down to what psychologists call the “implicit egotism” effect – we like things and people we are familiar with, including other people’s names, right down to the first letter.

Studies that support the connection between name and life outcome have more recently been criticised for overstating things, and for not accounting well enough for confounding factors. Studies might show you’re more likely to become a doctor if you’re called John, for instance, but that’s partly because there are already lots of Johns around who fetch up in all sorts of professions.

But there is good evidence names can trigger certain biases that affect people’s lives. In 2004, US researchers created and sent in 5000 resumes in response to job ads posted in the classifieds of two American newspapers. Some of the CVs had “white-sounding names” (like Emily and Greg) and others had “black-sounding names” (like Lakisha and Jamal). One out of every 10 “white” resumes received a callback, while only one of every 15 “black” resumes did.

A study by Swedish economists compared the earnings of a group of immigrants who changed their names to Swedish-sounding or neutral names with a group of immigrants who came from the same regions but didn’t. They found a 26 per cent difference in earnings between the name-changers and the name-keepers. In other words, at least in 1990s Sweden, keeping your foreign-sounding name came with a hefty cost.

Of course, there’s a well-established tradition among immigrants of changing their name to fit in with whatever environment they have ended up in, if only so their name can be more easily pronounced.

“People generally prefer not to think more than necessary, and they tend to prefer objects, people, products and words that are simple to pronounce and understand,” writes Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink; and Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave. Alter co-authored a 2011 study in which he found people with easy-to-pronounce names did seem to have an easier ride in life; people preferred politicians with easily pronounceable names, for instance, and lawyers with easily pronounceable names were more likely to rise up the ranks in American law firms. This apparent bias was evident among people with hard-to-pronounce Anglo-American names, too, so it couldn’t be put down to xenophobia.

Alter has cautioned parents against worrying too much about what to call their children, though, as the influences of names are subtle, and subject to the forces of change. Many might not have known how to pronounce “Barack” a decade ago, but that didn’t stop Obama, whose name would now roll off the collective tongue as easily as Ronald, George and Bill.

Context is everything, and we do tend to adjust and adapt, to our own names and to other people’s names. I mentioned Alter’s study to the editor of this magazine, whose son lives in Beijing. “Possibly, had we known he was going to end up in China, we wouldn’t have named him Laurence Lewis Larson,” she says. But he has a Chinese name now, easily pronounced where he lives, and is apparently doing just fine.

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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