What’s in a name?


I saw this tweet the other day and had a hearty laugh. And then I started thinking (uh oh!).

There have been several highly publicized studies about how if someone named “Lakeisha Jones” changes their name to “Cindy Jones” on a resume, suddenly they get a much better response from the HR folks screening job applications. The tweet made me wonder if there will come a time in the next 10-20 years when HR people are going to say, “Oh great, another hipster-spawn yuppie” and toss out the resumes of affluent white kids based on their names.

And then I started thinking about how this even extends beyond multi-culturalism. I know that I’ve been been guilty of thinking, “I’ve never met a guy named ‘Blake’ who wasn’t a total douche bag,” or “I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl named ‘Kasey’ who wasn’t a total bitch.” Maybe I’m the only person who’s ever had thoughts like that, but I’d suspect that I’m not.

And then I started wondering if this extends beyond America. Do people in other countries have similar biases against names, even names from their own culture? Is there some HR guy in Japan looking at a resume and thinking, “Oh great, another ‘Toshi’; just what I needed, another asshole to add to the pile.”

What’s going on here? How could a name produce such powerful reactions before we even meet a person? It’s not like people name their children Blake thinking that they’re going to grow up to be total D-bags. Nobody names their daughter Candy because they hope that someday they wind up dancing on a pole.

So where do our reactions come from? Is it simply because people hate things that are different or outside of the norm, and this extends to names–is everything, as the tweet implies, relative? Or could it really the case that certain types of people gravitate toward certain names? All asshole parents think “Blake” is a cool name, so they wind up raising an asshole child, or that all hippies think “Daffodil Buttercup” is a pretty name, so they wind up raising a bunch of free-spirited and aimless children with the same name?

What say you, internet? What are your thoughts on names?


5 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Nominative determinism. I remember reading (in Drunk Tank Pink) about all the effects names have on someone’s life and just thinking, thank goodness I don’t plan on having kids.
    “Every name is associated with demographic baggage: information about the bearer’s age, gender, ethnicity, and other basic personal features. Take the name Dorothy, for example. Imagine that you’re about to open your front door to a stranger named Dorothy. What kind of person do you expect Dorothy to be?”
    He says most people would assume it’s a woman, white, and elderly. And that’s fairly likely to be true.
    I guess it’s pretty natural to make assumptions when we have limited information about a person. We judge on looks and names and whatever else we can instantly glean.

    1. I knew there had to be an answer! Thank you. Still, I have to wonder how a lot of these stereotypical associations started. Gender and ethnicity are fairly obvious. But some of the other baggage that comes with names at times seems a little more nebulous.

      1. Yeah, I don’t know much about how they originate or how any specific name ends up with certain associations. All these unconscious influences are interesting, though.

  2. Yeah I would agree with Matthew that it is simply associated with our need to classify information. Names belong in categories. We do the same thing not only with names, but with other bits of information about the person. I mean someone told you about a guy, regardless of his name, who played fantasy golf, you’d immediately make some sort of assumption about him. Just as you would a name. Anecdotal evidence also causes you to form categories about people as well. The key is of course to let that momentary reaction happen and then use your brain to think your way out of it. I listened to this great podcast called Invisibilia on NPR, and one of the episodes was about categories and how are mind works. It was pretty informative. Worth it if you have the time.

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