What does your name say about you? | #WhoAmI | Life Links | DW | 24.10.2014
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What does your name say about you?

Does your name influence the course of your life? What do other people think of you if you are named Callum? What if a boy has a girl’s name? Our Life Links listicle has the answers.

Whenever people hear my name for the first time, I see them frown slightly before they ask me to say it again.

“My name’s Gianna,” I say, “like the Italian singer Gianna Nannini.” Or, “like Giotto, the German sweet in the television ads, just with -anna at the end instead of -otto.”

The next questions are always: “Is it an Italian name?” and “Do you have Italian ancestors?” (For the record, I have red hair, making it very unlikely that I might have Italian roots, and no connections with Italy other than a deep-rooted love for pasta.)

But it seems that for most people, rather than a name just being something to call someone, it is also something with deeper meaning; something that provides a clue to who we are. That’s why here at Life Links, we asked ourselves: What’s really in a name?

1. The sophisticated Middle I. Nitial: People judge others to be smarter if their name contains a middle initial, like David F. Clark, psychologists found in several experiments. And while some people may say, ‘less is more’, in this case, they found it not to be true: if someone had two middle initials, they were perceived as being even more intelligent by others, than those with less or no middle initials. Apparently study’s author Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg got one up on his colleague Eric R. Igou...

2. How your parents vote: In fact, the name you have says far more about your parents than about you. Political scientists from the University of Chicago investigated how a parents’ political leaning influences the names they give their children, as they explain on Freakonomics. Liberal mothers for example are said to choose more uncommon names like Esmé or Una, that are softer and more female-sounding, whereas conservative mothers are said to tend toward phonetically harder, more masculine sounding names like McKenzie or Jordan.

3. Notorious names: What if you had the most notorious name in the world? Filmmaker Matt Ogens went out to “Meet the Hitlers” for his documentary. He found that some people, who consciously kept it as their family name, had a heritage going back further than World War II. He found teenagers struggling with it. And he also found parents who named their kids ‘Hitler’ on purpose, as a symbolic statement of their own ideological worldview.

4. Is it belief - or chance? In some places there are no discussions between future moms and dads about the most suitable name - instead, there are complex rituals determining the child’s name, for example, as described by researchers in 1921. Back then, the African Khasi people carried out a special ceremony where a relative would read out a list of names. While reading it out, he’d pour rice liquor into rice meal. The name that is read as the drop, taking longest to break away from the bottle neck, falls into the rice meal, is the one the child is given. If you think that this sounds rather strange - think twice: what would they think of pouring holy water over the top of a child’s head as in Christian naming traditions, for example?

5. Everything is connected: Dennis or Denise are overrepresented among dentists and are more likely to live in Denver. The concept of “implicit egotism” argues that it seems people are more likely to move to cities that have some similarity to their name. This is said to apply especially to major decisions in life.

6. Bridging the gender gap? Having a name that people associate with the opposite gender does not make life easier for those with such a name - think Johnny Cash and his song “A Boy named Sue”. In contrast to the song’s happy ending, reality - at least the one according to economist David N. Figlio - can be somewhat different: in his essay he found that boys given female names like Taylor or Dominique tended to misbehave. However, if you’re a woman with a man’s name, it might actually help. Researchers in the US found that females had more success in male-dominated jobs, when they had male sounding names like Terry or Francis.

7. Troublemakers vs. masterminds: Some names are seen as synonymous with troublemaking: “Kevin is not a name - it’s a diagnosis” commented a teacher in a survey of 2,000 German teachers. In the UK, Children named Callum or Chelsea are more likely to be troublemakers compared with their classmates with other names, according to teachers taking part in a UK survey. In contrast, the 3,000 educators, said they would expect the Elisabeths and Alexanders of the world to be brighter than average.

8. Falling into the racial gap: Taking the prejudices one step further, they can lead to job discrimination. Responding to fictitious resumes sent to help-wanted ads, those with white-sounding names, like Emily or Todd, received 50 percent more call-backs than those African-American-sounding names like Aisha and Rasheed - irrespective of industry, occupation or company size, as researchers showed in an experiment in the US; the same applied where people had foreign-sounding names in countries like Germany or France.

9. Don’t make it too complex. If your name is easier to pronounce, people are more likely to associate what you say with the truth: For example, if you were named Marciano Larrosa - an easy name to pronounce, according to the study - other people would be more likely to judge what you said as being true, than if you were named Svea Gelowicz. In fact, people with easier to pronounce names were evaluated more positively overall.

Overview of pronouncability of names in different regions of the world

10. All for nothing: As in all good scientific debates, there are some scientists saying A, while others say B - and so it is in this case. And while we have cited a number of examples where researchers have shown people’s first names to have an influence on their lives, there are at least two economists, who disagree. What do you think?

Ps. If you need some help making a decision: Look at point 1 and keep in mind that this study was conducted by Roland G. Fryer and Steven D. Levitt.

Ps. There is no reason, why I have an Italian name. Besides the one that my parents seemed to like it. I was named Gianna in 1987 when it was not obvious for officials in Germany whether it is a female or male name. For that reason, my parents needed to give me a more obvious female-sounding second name, eternally connected to my first first name by a hyphen. Thus: sincerely yours, Gianna-Carina Grün.

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