The first piece of information strangers learn about most people is a moniker picked for them by their parents. But what you are called can have a surprising impact on how others perceive us.
You might have dwelt on the different ways that your parents shaped you – from their warmth and strictness to their generosity and pushiness. But perhaps you haven’t thought so much about the consequences of one particularly important gift they bestowed upon you – your name – and whether you like it, and how wider society views it.
Parents often agonise over what to call their children. It can feel like a test of creativity or a way to express their own personalities or identities through their offspring. But what many parents might not fully realise – I know I certainly didn’t – is that the choice they make over their children’s names could play a part in shaping how others see their child and therefore ultimately the kind of person their child becomes.
“Because a name is used to identify an individual and communicate with the individual on a daily basis, it serves as the very basis of one’s self-conception, especially in relation to others,” says David Zhu, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, who researches the psychology of names.
Of course, many factors sculpt our personalities. Some of it is influenced by our genes. Formative experiences play a huge role, so too the people we hang out with, and ultimately the roles we take on in life, whether at work or in the family. Amidst all these dynamics, it’s easy to forget the part played by our names – a highly personal influence imposed on us from birth and that usually stays with us through life (unless we go to the trouble of changing it). As Gordon Allport, one of the founders of personality psychology put it in 1961, “the most important anchorage to our self-identity throughout life remains our own name”.