Looking for a way to make friends rather than casual acquaintances? For a method of bonding quickly and easily with new contacts that you meet? Research indicates that both personally and professionally, positive social connection is facilitated through intentionally and correctly using a person´s name.
What´s In a Name? More Than You Think
Many people find themselves in positions where they have to learn new names quickly. For me, it happens during my night job–teaching business ethics at San Diego State University. Juggling multiple classes with large numbers of students means being faced with a slew of unfamiliar, sometimes unpronounceable names on the roll sheet. Knowing I will butcher some of them as I go through, is the solution just laughing off the mistakes, sometimes with the rest of the class?
According to research, the answer is an emphatic no. Especially in an academic setting, mis-pronouncing a name is no laughing matter.
A PBS News Hour article from May 16, 2016 explained how teachers who mispronounce student names cause a lasting impact on students.The article explains how names are much more than titles; they represent history, values, culture, and more. It points out that mispronouncing student names can render students invisible or insignificant.
It stands to reason that conversely, taking the time to learn how to pronounce a student´s name, including if appropriate, what it means and where it comes from, can enhance rapport, facilitate communication, and build confidence.
This dynamic surely operates in contexts outside the classroom as well. If you have a name with a challenging spelling or one that is frequently mispronounced, when someone invests the time and effort to research and practice your name in order to say it correctly, it indicates respect, interest, and attention.
Name Calling Boosts Self Esteem and Respect
In public, we are often asked for our names when ordering food or drink. One of the most famous examples of this practice occurs at Starbuck´s. Sure, some customers make up names to preserve privacy, wanting their order to be delivered without revealing their identity to a store full of strangers. But among those people who give their real names, many are not pleased when baristas get them wrong.
Research by Tracy Rank-Christman et al. (2017) found that although personalization can increase consumption, “marketplace misidentification” reduces consumption, functioning as a defensive response to a perceived threat to personal identity. They found that in the marketplace, consumers who are misidentified (as opposed to being identified correctly or unidentified) display avoidance behaviors—a finding that was mediated by feelings of respect.
Their research also demonstrated that ego fragility, measured by implicit self-esteem, moderated the impact of misidentification, with the impact most pronounced in individuals with fragile egos.
Demonstrating there is hope for those who accidentally misidentify others, Rank-Christman et al. found that the negative impact of misidentification was attenuated through self-affirmation, demonstrating that affirming misidentified consumers eliminated avoidant behavior.
They concluded that a consumer will respond negatively to mistaken identification when it decreases respect for the consumer’s self. They therefore proposed that consumers will only respond negatively to a mistake when it is linked to an important aspect of their self-concept, based on decreased perceived respect
Interestingly, in discussing their findings, they cite previous research suggesting that women seem to be more strongly connected to their first name, and men to their last name.
Speaking the Names
Names are markers of identity. Research by Zelda Knight (2018) explains how names define our sense of self.She notes that in psychotherapy, clients introduce themselves by their own name, and then sometimes verbalize their intergenerational family names—a practice termed “speaking the names.”
Knight found that this practice, which she characterizes as significant psychologically, involves verbalizing one´s place within a larger family structure, “speaking the hope” of the family, as well as other findings relating to the meaning of a family name or lack thereof.
She gives examples of patients who expressed the comfort and sense of identity involved in speaking the names of family members. Patients expressed feeling a sense of connection and belonging, comfort in knowing where they came from, and possessing a “blueprint” of identity.
Naming or Shaming
Knight recognizes that for some, families are a source of shame, abuse, and humiliation—making it more difficult for clients to verbalize the names. In this context, she defines speaking family names as “speaking the shame.”
Naming can be problematic for other reasons. Knight discusses the potential pressure created by passing along first names. Naming a son after his father, for example, may instill a belief that the child is expected to live up to or surpass the standards of the father. She also notes that children may be driven to succeed and accomplish great things to bring honor to their family name and make their family proud.
Not always a positive experience, some children who carry the family name describe themselves as feeling constricted, imprisoned, and pressured to perform.
The Name of the Game
The bottom line appears to be that in any context, when we are meeting new people, intentional, correct use of names is an excellent way to show interest and respect, and a great way to be remembered—fondly.
Tracy Rank-Christman, Maureen Morrin, and Christine Ringler, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find out What My Name Means to Me: The Effects of Marketplace Misidentification on Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Psychology27, no. 3, 2017, 333–340.
Zelda G. Knight, “‘Speaking the Names’ of Family as ‘Speaking a Place,’” British Journal of Psychotherapy 34, no. 3, 2018, 428–442.