What’s In a Name?

whats in a name
November 13, 2019
by Stacey Joseph for ImpactEDI™

“What’s in a name?”  Juliet asked this of her beloved Romeo in Shakespeare’s most famous work.  She was telling Romeo that a name itself is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that a name, does not make the person. According to recent brain research, Juliet, in all her tragically-romantic glory, couldn’t have been more wrong.

A 2006 study from the Institute for the Study of Child Development, reveals that auditory name recognition is associated with a unique pattern of brain activation associated with “self-representational” behavior. Generally speaking, self-representation is about self-identity and self-image, and is intrinsically linked to self-interest consisting of the collection of a person’s personal goals, whether conscious or unconscious.  Self-representation can roughly be divided into three subgroups concerned with (1) depicting oneself to oneself, (2) depicting oneself to others, and (3) evaluating oneself according to one’s own standards.  Other self-representation behaviors include recognizing your image in a mirror, using pronouns and adjectives to describe yourself, and describing your own mental state. Self-representation and the associated behaviors is how we form self-concepts.

Self-concepts are also influenced by the culture in which we live and or exist within for long periods of time i.e. a school culture, job culture, or organizational culture.  In a study on Culture and The Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation, psychologists found that whereas some cultures have more “independent self-construals,” in which the self is autonomous and guided by internal thoughts and feelings, other cultures have more “interdependent self-construals,” in which the self is connected with others and guided, at least in part, by others’ thoughts and feelings. Another way that the individual, and social levels intersect with respect to self-concept involves the “looking-glass self” or “reflected appraisals”.  This is the idea that within close or familiar relationships, we all come to see ourselves as others see us, because the “reflected self” plays a greater role in helping to shape our self-concept.

Teachers frequently “butcher” our names.  It makes us feel “insecure,” “disrespected,” and even “inferior.”

So why is this important in the context of Diversity, and Inclusion?

Have you ever had anyone struggle to pronounce your name, and simply didn’t take the time to ask how to pronounce it or learn the correct pronunciation? One third of the U.S. Population have names that many people would consider difficult to pronounce. Existing in spaces where people either don’t pronounce our names correctly, or simply don’t refer to us by name, significantly decreases our engagement, and hinders the possibility of us achieving success in the space. During a nationwide campaign created to help educators understand that not pronouncing or mispronouncing a student’s name can hinder their success in life, two students, Michelle-Thuy Ngoc Duong and Angel Gustavo Silva Moreno spoke out, sharing that teachers frequently “butchered” their names, and it made them feel “insecure,” “disrespected,” and even “inferior.”  Just think of the missed opportunities that arise each time a student is not called on in class or referred to by name because a teacher isn’t sure how to pronounce it, or each time it’s mispronounced. What might be the repetitive impact of this experience on the student?

What about in the workplace? Have you ever been on a conference call and someone mis-pronounces a colleagues name, and either out of embarrassment or in order not to impeded workflow, the colleague laughs it off or even makes a suggestion like: “you can just call me Sam,” when clearly his/her name is two or three syllables longer than Sam?  Imagine, how much more engaged, engaging, creative, or successful one would be if colleagues or members of any organization supported the self-recognition and self-actualization of others, simply by learning the correct pronunciation of their names.

In 2006, the Journal of Neurology, Neurourgery, and Psychiatry published a study on “Selective Brain Activity in Response to One’s Own Name” which proved that the reaction to one’s own name is so powerful that patterns of self-awareness/recognition, self-responsiveness, and self-actualization became suddenly present in patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Patients in PVS who were previously unable to speak, move, identify others, or even open their eyes, would demonstrate brain activations upon hearing their names.  Just think, if the sound of our own name is powerful enough to momentarily activate our brains in a vegetative state, imagine the possibilities when names are used to encourage, stimulate, or support a student’s academic success, engagement, and development!  

Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

– Dale Carnegie

cocktail party effect

In his book How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares his understanding that something out of the ordinary occurs when people hear their own name. What he describes by encouraging us to “remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language,” is what is referred to as the “cocktail party effect” As it turns out, your name is one of the easiest sounds for your Reticular Activating System (RAS) to hone in on.  Here’s how the cocktail party effect works: If you’re at a party with dozens of people chatting around you, you’ll typically find that all too easily you ignore or tune out those conversations. They become background noise. Yet, as soon as someone says something that is of particular interest to you, you will magically tune into that specific conversation. Your RAS is responsible for your immediate ability to rise above the noise, and detect words of importance originating from unattended stimuli, i.e. hearing one’s name in a crowded room, among a wide range of sounds. The RAS is not involved in interpreting the quality or type of sensory input. Rather, it activates the entire cerebral cortex with energy.  It wakes it up, and increases its level of arousal and readiness for interpreting incoming information and preparing the brain for appropriate action.

So, What’s in a name?  If you still don’t get it, just ask someone whose name is constantly mispronounced. Or ask Praveen Shanbhag, Founder & CEO of NameCoach. Praveen founded NameCoach to help create more inclusive schools and campuses, using innovative services that enable instructors, students services officers, advisers, and students to have more respectful and personal interactions. While Praveen has had more than his fair share of experiences in which his name was mispronounced, the inspiration for NameCoach was born out of a collective disappointment experienced by his family during his little sister’s graduation ceremony.  “The big day was upon us, we had our family there, family friends there; we were all very proud of my little sister.  She went across the stage and this was a big moment for us, the big climax, and they totally butchered it.”  NameCoach is a relatively simple tool that is making a huge impact on inclusion by helping people pronounce difficult to pronounce names, correctly.  To use NameCoach, you simply go to the website, record your name and then your name recording can be available to others so that they can hear and learn how to say it properly.  Recorded names are then accessible via mobile devices, laptops, and google classroom. You can learn more about NameCoach here.

There’s a reason why introductions typically happen before we begin a conversation with someone.  Learning someone’s name, and how to pronounce it, increases the possibility of connection exponentially. Knowing the names of the people with whom we sit in community is the very first step to building meaningful connection and fostering inclusion in any space. Conversely, mispronouncing or not using someone’s name, almost always triggers feelings of exclusion or a sense of alienation. Why risk it?  Why not follow this very simple rule of thumb: If you don’t know – ask.  If you think you know but aren’t sure – ask.  If you knew previously but forgot, that’s just fine – *Just. Ask.

“A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name right, and can call me, is entitled to my love and service.”

-Henry David Thoreau


*Do you have a name that’s difficult to pronounce, and want to share your experiences dealing with the mispronunciation of your name? Be a part of our #Justask Campaign.  Emails us here requesting additional details.


Images provided by GettyImages, the “My Name My Identity” Campaign, and The Cocktail Party Effect Sketch courtesy of Dr. Peter Coppin, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Design at University of Toronto.  Dr. Peter Coppin  is a designer, visual artist, and cognitive scientist. You can find more of his work here.





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