What’s in a name? More than you’d think

DENIZ BÖLÖNI-TURGUT, Lifestyles Staff Writer

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As she walks across campus, sophomore Ela Patel hears her name being called. She turns, expecting to see one of her friends, but is disappointed to see another Ella being greeted instead.

Situations like this are common since many Trinity students share the same first or last name. In fact, there are three Ellas in Patel’s grade alone. As the Romans said, “nomen est omen” — names play a large role in our lives. Some studies suggest that they influence our grades, our mental health and the way that others perceive and treat us.

According to a study by Harvard University, students with uncommon names might be more likely to fail a class and exhibit mental distress than their peers with more common ones. For Patel, having a common name has its advantages and disadvantages. Although her first name, Ela, is spelled the Gujarati way (with one “l” instead of two) and means “woman of wisdom,” it is pronounced the same way as the American version.

“People can understand my name. I can just say ‘oh I’m Ela’ and they won’t have a hard time pronouncing it or … spelling it,” Patel said. “But at the same time, it’s still special in its own way because it has its own different meaning that nobody else’s does.”

Having a name that is easy to pronounce is not only convenient but, as a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology says, could influence your success. The study found that the general public was more likely to vote for politicians with simple names and lawyers with simple names were more likely to be promoted. Even when the study looked at only American names, the results were the same; simple names were preferred. This indicates that racial bias did not play a role in the study’s results.

Junior Aleyna Buyukaksakal has had a lot of experience with people struggling to pronounce her last name. She said that some people don’t try because they are intimidated by the length of it.

“For the most part, it’s kind of fun teaching people how to pronounce it,” Buyukaksakal said. “A lot of my friends are really good at it now. They know how to spell it and stuff like that.”

However, most people pronounce Buyukaksakal’s last name wrong which Buyukaksakal says can get kind of annoying.

“I’m used to it at this point because it’s just hard having a foreign name at all here, specifically one that’s super long,” Buyukaksakal said. “I would prefer it if people tried to pronounce it better, but honestly it’s probably never going to happen.”

Some Trinity students, such as Ziqi Zhang who moved to the U.S. from China, choose to adopt an American, or English, first name to avoid some of the problems Buyukaksakal has with her last name.

“My Chinese name is really hard to pronounce so probably my English name is better … for you guys to remember,” Zhang said. “[But], I don’t really care what others call me.”

Zhang said that she did not think that she would be treated differently if she used her Chinese name in the U.S. but a study published by economists at Stockholm University suggests that there might be a stigma against foreign names. It found that immigrants to Sweden who changed their names to Swedish or ethnically neutral ones earned substantially more money than those who did not. Perhaps the reasons for that are as outlined in the 2011 study since Swedish names are easier for Swedish people to pronounce. Patel said that her parents chose her name carefully to help her fit in.

“They didn’t want me to be too much of an outsider,” Patel said. “They chose an American name but then they decided to put their own twist on it because they wanted it to be kind of different.”

Despite her parents’ caution, Patel learned that there are preconceptions associated with even the spelling of a name.

“There were plenty of people [in elementary school] who saw me differently after they learned the spelling of my name,” Patel said. “They started to see ‘oh you’re not American, you’re Indian.’ … I noticed that they just didn’t really vibe with me the same way.”

Both Patel and Zhang’s experiences beg the question of how much a name contributes to racial bias and our lives in general. The looking glass self is a concept in psychology which suggests that other people’s perceptions of you play a role in shaping your self-image. Studies like the ones above seem to support the idea that names play a large role in others’ perceptions of you.

“Chinese people really care about the name,” Zhang said. “They think it’s going to affect your whole life. … I don’t care about that, but my parents and grandparents [do].”

Freshman Jeffrey Wang is one of four students with the last name Wang in ninth grade alone, which has led to problems.

“In English class, me and Jonathan have the same [last name],” Wang said. “The English teacher, Dr. Boerth, he switched up our scores on the quiz. I didn’t really mind too much because he eventually changed it when we got back in class.”

Wang said his math teacher made a similar mistake, since there are four students (across different grades) with the last name Wang in his class. He said that sometimes people make jokes about the four of them having the same last name.

“I feel like my name doesn’t really matter that much,” Wang said. “As long as they can get to know me, they know that I’m different from other people.”

Patel, Buyukaksakal, Zhang and Wang’s names have all affected their lives in some way. Patel and Buyukaksakal said that their names are important to them while Zhang and Wang said that they think otherwise. All three studies above indicate that names affect people’s perceptions of you and the looking-glass self theory says that others’ perceptions of you are integral to shaping yourself. It seems like a positive feedback loop, but at the end of the day, our names play as much or as little of a role in our lives as we allow them to.