Monday, September 29, 2008


¿Cómo se llama usted?

Some weeks ago, U.S. News & World Report columnist Liz Wolgemuth wrote about whether having an unusual name can affect your career prospects:

While a bizarre first name rarely says much about the individual who carries it—serving instead to lay the parents out like an open book—will Zuma, Apple, or Kyd have trouble being taken seriously in the working world?
Liz cites blogs that raise the question, and asks, “Would you mind letting Sage Moonblood manage your money?” Her advice on the issue mirrors the Internet philosophy of being conservative with what you give and liberal in what you accept:
If you’re a parent, consider the professional ramifications of your child’s name. But if you’re an employer, focus on performance.

Commenter #2, a man who is himself named Sebastianalexander, says that an unusual name is, indeed a problem — and he speaks from personal experience. But he opened his comment with this:

While we all strive to be nonjudgemental and open minded, based on name alone would you hire Shaquinella Jackson or Jane Goldstein as your defense lawyer? It’s a silent decision we all make quite often and we do what we honestly know is best.

My response to that, which I gave in the comments there and have meant to blog about here since, is that I don’t judge people on their names alone. Sure, I’ll note an unusual name, a “strange” name, and will sometimes shake my head in wonder. But when it comes to choosing someone to hire or befriend, no, I won’t consider that as a factor. I mentioned that when I talked about what I look at in résumés.

I do wonder why parents give their children names that they’ll have to spend their lives repeating (“Sorry, I didn’t get that... what did you say your name was?”), spelling, and explaining. And, as Liz says, some names certainly appear to assume that their owners will go into entertainment, rather than, say, law or medicine. Still, as Liz’s commenter #1 points out, we may soon have a president called Barack. And if you’re looking in the phone book for a defense attorney, you’re more likely to see “Jackson and Goldstein, LLP”, and not see the given names at all.

But, here, let’s have a quiz. Suppose you were looking for that defense attorney, or someone to get financial advice from, or otherwise just someone to trust. Decide something from the names before you look at the links... and then think about whether anything changes afterward. Would you put your trust in Epatha, or Lynette?

You can’t judge people by their names.

What do you expect of Tawanna Smith, and of Angela Reddock?

You can’t make assumptions based on people's names.


Thomas J. Brown said...

My wife's maiden name was Morah Peltonen. Morah is a Hebrew word, and Peltonen is Finnish. When we got married, she was happy that her last name would become Brown so that, as she put it, "at least people be able to spell one of my names."

Penn Jillette talked about this in one of this episodes of Penn Says. His argument for giving children unique names is quite compelling: "Child abuse is naming your goddamn kid Dave. You name your fuckin' kid Dave because you want him to have a name just like everyone else. It's saying, 'I want my son to be just a regular old piece-of-shit Dave. I want someone to be able to yell his name in a room with 50 people and have 6 people answer, "oh, are you talking to me? Do you mean me?"' I mean, when you're having a child, nothing could be more important. A child is by definition unique. Why would you give him the fuckin' name Dave? Why would you name anyone Dave?! I mean, or Sarah? Or any of these names? You know, I have 2 friends who both named their daughter Eva! You know? I mean, I love the kids, I love their dads, I love their moms, I love everybody in the world, you know? But why name a fuckin' kid Dave when you could name a kid Mox, Moxie, you know, and you can love her with all your heart, and she can go in a room with 300 people and someone can say, 'hey Moxie,' and she knows they're talking to her. That's what I want for my daughter."

Laurie said...

While my name may sound extremely common, my parents gave it to me because a) I was named after my grandmother, Annie Lawrie, and b) because it is a very unusual name (male or female) in England. I have 17 cousins in England, and none of them know another Laurie. I'll never know if I would have experienced bias due to my name in England (I probably would have been teased about being a truck, though)

Then we moved to the States where Lauries are a dime a dozen...

Thomas J. Brown said...

@Laurie - My wife is also named after her grandmother, and no one else we've ever talked to has met another Morah.

If we have a daughter, we're planning on naming her Tamsyn. Absolutely common in England, not so much in the United States.

Barry Leiba said...

Hm. I think "Peltonen" is a great last name. Maybe Morah should have changed her first name, instead, to something like "Maja". And then you could have become Thomas Peltonen; that's way cool!

As to Penn Jillette, well... and Moxie's middle name is "CrimeFighter" (and his son's name is Zolten, Penn's wife's maiden name). Yes, but they don't quite match up to Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen. I guess Mr Jillette thought about the alternatives of names that everyone has, and names that your kids will need to spell and repeat and explain all their lives... and chose the latter. It's certainly a valid choice.

As to Tamsyn, yes, common in the UK but not so much with that spelling. More usually, "Tamsin", and occasionally "Tamzin" (as with former Eastenders actress Tamzin Outhwaite (in her case, I don't think Tamzin was her given name, but she picked it as an adult)).

Laurie, you've reminded me of some of the common US/UK differences in names, like those that are surnames in the UK (Hugh Laurie, for instance), but first names here... and those that generally are masculine names there and feminine ones here (Beverley, Robin, Carol, Leslie). In any case, even here, I imagine you get "Lori" quite frequently.

Keep on truckin'......

Thomas J. Brown said...

Yeah, I want to spell it Tamsin, but my wife's family has some crazy obsession with the letter "y" (for example, my sister-in-law's name is Brynna, pronounced bren-uh), and she wants to keep that tradition going.

As for Penn's kids' middle names, also in that video he explains that he and his wife don't really care about middle names (apparently, she doesn't even have one), so choosing Crime Figher for Moxie's middle name was just for fun.

Barry Leiba said...

I've not got a middle name neither, nr did me dad, nor did his dad. Before that, I've no idea.

Actually, that, in itself, is something I often have to explain, and in grade school my classmates were forever trying to "find out" what mine was, certain that I actually had one and just didn't like it and didn't want to tell them.

Lisa said...

Hi Barry,

Did you intentionally avoid talking about unconscious bias? Studies have repeatedly shown that when people can see the names on resumes, even when they think they are focusing on the rest of the stuff on the resume, they are still influenced by the name.

Do you believe you are not influenced by the name at all? Or do you believe that you try to minimize or compensate for your unconscious biases?

Barry Leiba said...

I implied it in my earlier post: I do my best to avoid looking at the name until later:
«So, that said, the first snag is that I don’t start by looking at the applicant’s name, or other such information that’s likely to be heading the résumé. That’s not the most important stuff on there, and I also wouldn’t want to take even the small risk that things like the name or address would prompt me to pre-judge the applicant.»

And, of course, I also do my best to avoid the bias (or compensate for it), but it's pretty hard to avoid unconscious bias, and compensation leaves one open to over-compensation. Ideally, we'd make sure résumés were anonymized for the first pass, and we only got to see the names after we'd given initial "maybe" or "no" to them.

Lisa said...

Thanks, I thought I remembered something about not looking at the name. My dad actually had his secretary cover up the names on scholarship applications at his university, so he ended up reviewing my application before realizing he should recuse himself!

I think I've see people overcompensate too.

Kerstin said...

Actually, sometimes it may be convenient to have a slightly unusual name...ever thought of people who are trying to include you in an invitation to an awkward meeting and cannot find you on the firm's outlook directory just because they are not sure how to spell your name.
My surname is pretty unusual in both Germany - where I used to live - and the UK - where I live now. Not sure how many meetings I actually avoided, but I can certainly confirm they cannot track me down easily in my current firm.
Oh yeah, and I am sure I don't even have to tell you what people come up with when I tell them my first name is 'Kerstin'. Wondering though what people make of that when they see it on a CV?