Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

What’s in a name?


Names fascinate me.

We can all think of people we know or in the public arena who have names that couldn’t better suit their profession. My first bank manager was named Ransom. I think it fun that one of the gardening experts on Radio 4 is called Bob Flowerdew.

I wonder whether names help determine our futures or whether such instances are mere coincidence?

Our name often will, by definition reflect our social and cultural roots. For example, my surname is Polish. I like having a Polish name, partly because it is a little unusual, but also because it is a permanent reminder of where I come from.

I recall, when I started my first full time sales job, my manager declaring that I should change my name. “Clients will have difficulty pronouncing and spelling it”  he asserted.

I refused. This was on two counts. One was that it’s my name and I’d rather not change it and secondly, people were much more likely to remember it. The latter has certainly proved to be the case over the years, although the more creative interpretations have included “Marcabbage” and “Muckybitch”!

I’d say my name has therefore stood me in reasonable stead throughout my professional life. Nevertheless, I hope the same will apply to my teenage children. Given the recent influx of Poles into the UK, feelings are quite mixed out there in the community, and the possibility of bias – conscious or unconscious – could have a bearing when they seek employment, for example.

About five years ago the UK Department of Work and Pensions carried out a “sting” operation where they submitted job applications for a range of roles, to almost 1000 organisations in a variety of sectors. They wanted to ascertain whether bias existed amongst employers, based simply on names. These applications featured individuals with three differing identities– English, African and Moslem.  The applicant with the English sounding name submitted nine applications before receiving a positive response, the others had to submit sixteen.

Indeed, there has been controversy lately over the fact that some of the major high street banks have been blocking accounts held by innocent people with Moslem sounding names for reasons of “security”.

Similarly, I wonder how many Waynes or Sharons there are at Oxford or Cambridge as distinct from James’s or Hannahs? Does the name on the application make a difference?

There is no doubt that certain names can carry a “vibe” which can affect another’s perception of us and consequently how we may be able to progress in this, our “multi-cultural” society.

On a lighter note, I have enjoyed playing the game where you give yourself a new identity, based on a combination of your first pet’s name and the name of the first road you lived on. Some of the combinations I’ve heard have been hilarious. I wonder which direction my name combination will have taken me in? The mind boggles……

This is Mitzi Gayville signing off for another week.

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One Response to “What’s in a name?”

  1. As a group facilitator I often encounter a problem with names – particularity as I pride myself on not only remembering everyone’s name, but also using it.

    Needless to say as a person born and brought up in the UK, I have little problem hearing, knowing and recalling the Johns and Debbies of the group. I have to concentrate harder on Dipesh or Devika and will still use them when addressing the person.

    Recently I have found myself struggling with Nigerian (and other African) names and also eastern European ones told to be with a hard to understand accent.

    One’s name is part of identity and if I fail to hear, understand or use Ngambi after she has introduced herself, then I am treating her less equally than Debbie.

    So the technique I have developed is to ask only once for the person to repeat their name at introduction. If I don’t get it then I own this as my weakness. “I’m sorry” I would say “I’m trying, but failing to hear your name. Would you mind writing it down, that I will understand”. Then, having focused on me and having the name written, I understand and make sure I use it during the workshop.

    It becomes me presenting equality best practice in action.

    Thanks as ever Chris for bringing this issue to us. I think I will write more on it on my blog http://www.equalityedge.com


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