Monday, April 5, 2021

What's In a Name?

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

" Identity is not just who you are currently, but who you are called to be. "
- Kris Wolfe 

My name is Taruna.

In Sanskrit, Taruna means “the ever young”. My name was given to me by my parents. In Hinduism, there is a tradition to select names that have some auspicious meaning and many names are derived directly or indirectly from the names of the Gods and Goddesses. There are also elaborate ceremonies and rituals that reinforce the significance of one's name. Although I don't claim to be a religious person, my name truly calls to me. I have a deep spiritual connection to my name and every time I hear it, it is a call to my true, authentic self.

When I moved to Canada in 2011, I started introducing myself as Taruna Goel. As I shook hands, I observed that people felt uncomfortable saying my name out aloud. Perhaps they didn’t hear my name correctly or they thought they may not be able to pronounce it correctly. Their discomfort soon turned into distance. I realized that I wasn't being offered an opportunity to participate because people couldn't say my name or ask me to join the conversation. Was no one interested in my opinion, I asked myself. At some point, I also felt 'forgettable' because I hardly ever heard my name outside of family and friends. I felt “unbelonged”.

So, I started introducing myself as TG (my initials).

Changing one’s name to fit in happens more often than some may think, especially on resumés. According to research from Stanford University and the University of Toronto, nearly half of black and Asian job applicants who altered their resumés did so by changing the presentation of their name in an effort to erase any racial cues. (The researchers found those who “whitened” their resumés were twice as likely to get call-backs for an interview, compared to those who left ethnic details intact.) as cited in Why getting a name right matters - BBC Worklife

Like many others, introducing myself as TG was a way to make myself “fit”. There was some degree of surprise on hearing two letters instead of a name but the handshakes were certainly firmer. People felt more confident about talking to me. I had many enthusiastic conversations with everyone in the room and was introduced to others.

I thought I might feel better; now that I ‘belonged’. But I didn’t. I felt as unbelonged as I did before.
"Name-related troubles are not trivial. Names associated with particular ethnoracial, linguistic or religious identities can hinder immigrants’ integration in terms of securing higher level employment, finding housing, accessing services, making friends and developing a sense of belonging in Canadian society. Even people born in Canada but who have “ethnic” names report cases of discrimination based on assumed links between their names and the hierarchy of ethnoracial categories which influence social power. These are not individual experiences; two studies done in Canada demonstrated systematic hiring discrimination based on applicants’ names. (Eid 2012; Oreopoulos and Dechief 2011)" says Karen Pennesi in Diversity and Names: Designing for Belonging.

Karen Pennesi is a professor at Western University, and she is also the Vice President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names. She studies how individual’s names are shaped, perceived, and often judged by personal evaluation, familial values, and societal mores (her project is here, and on Facebook here). Karen says, that “As symbols of identity, names influence self-perception and the unequal treatment of others. Names are especially important in issues related to immigration, social integration and belonging.”

I have often pondered about the reasons for feeling the way I did about reducing my name to my initials. I have come to realize that we truly belong only when we bring our entire, authentic selves. We can’t remove the uncomfortable parts of us and try to belong. I also realized that true belonging requires effort and practice – equally - by both parties. I need to make an effort to belong and others need to do the same too.

So, I have started introducing myself again as Taruna Goel. I put a conscious effort into my introduction. When I see that look on their face, I repeat my name – again and yet again – without hesitation. I spell my name when I can and tell the meaning of my name to make my introduction more memorable. I take an initiative to join the conversation when others are too afraid to pronounce my name and use that as an opportunity to introduce myself.

Names are the very foundation of linguistic communication. A world without them would be a very confusing place, says linguist Jennifer Dorman, senior instructional designer at the language-learning application Babbel. “Linguistically speaking, a name is what we use to refer to a person and provides a connection to someone’s unique identity,” says Dorman as cited in It’s Well Past Time White People Learn How To Say Everyone’s Names Correctly

"...names hold powerful psychological connections with how we see ourselves. In a world where identity is key and multifaceted, it makes sense then that names are, too." - Kavya Makam in The Name Game

But it is not all psychological and social. There is physiological evidence about the importance of hearing one's name too.

A scientific study published in Brain Research provides evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain activation patterns were examined in response to hearing one’s own first name in contrast to hearing the names of others. There are several regions in the left hemisphere that show greater activation to one’s own name, including middle frontal cortex, middle and superior temporal cortex, and cuneus.

So, to light up my brain, I am making the transition to introducing myself as Taruna Goel instead of TG. But all my friends and clients can always call me TG after they have been duly assessed for making a genuine effort in being able to say my name out loud correctly 😊

PS: The study of names is called onomastics or onomatology. Onomastics covers the naming of all things, including place names (toponyms) and personal names (anthroponyms)

References and other readings:

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