The Rose Smells Subtly Changed, In Fact

by Alexis Radcliff

What’s in a name? I was reading through some of the blogs that meander steadily into my Google Reader when I came across this interesting post by the newly dubbed Ms. Cliff Pervocracy. In the post she discusses changing her pen name for a variety of reasons, the most interesting of which is that she’ll appear to be male to casual readers and they’re likely to react differently.

If you happen to identify male and you’ve never tried posting as an (obvious) girl on the internet, try it sometime. On most sites, a community will give your views less credence and you have less assumed authority than if your audience perceives you as male, regardless of information. It’s a fascinating social snapshot of human behavior on the internet at work. Or if you consider yourself a lady, try posting with a male or gender-neutral pseudonym for a while. You might be shocked at the results. It’s subtle but pervasive and pretty consistent.

Gender aside, names themselves are hugely important. They affect how others perceive you and how you perceive yourself. Don’t be fooled into thinking that one name is as good as another: they can convey perceptions of class, wealth, nobility, credibility, authority, et cetera, usually in line with existing name trends in populations believed to possess those traits. You say you’ve never seen white privilege in action? Take a look at employment callback rates when the same resume is presented with a white and black name.

I’ve had the opportunity as an adult to completely change my name and pick a new one. I chose a name in line with the traits I wanted to represent to new parties, and with a relatively high status for the year I was born, and I’ve been really happy with it. Since then, I’ve had numerous people compliment me on having an awesome name (which never happened with my original name). It was an interesting experience that I’d actually recommend to people. I was amused by Ms. Pervocracy’s suggestion in her post that people should get to choose their name upon reaching adulthood, or once every ten years reset it. She writes:

In my despotic utopian fantasies, everyone would have to change their name (or consciously and explicitly choose to keep their birth name) upon reaching adulthood.  (Or better yet, every ten years.  This would result in a lot of middle-schoolers named Rocketship Dinosaur McExplosion and that’s awesome.)  It’s such a big and important part of your identity, it seems odd to just go with whatever you were handed.

Especially with what you were handed as a baby, when your parents couldn’t know the sort of person you’d grow up to be.  Certain names fit certain sorts of people, and it’s hard to predict that fit from a newborn.

This strikes me as not a terribly bad idea. Our names really do define us. If you named a Rose a “Urinecone” it probably would not smell sweet when presented to people who knew the new name. It’s empowering to select a name that fits the image we have of ourselves, rather than allowing our name to define us in the minds of others.

I’m also drawn to Cliff’s assertion that we should do more things that make us self-fulfilled and happy, rather than deny ourselves things because they’re “silly” or because we “shouldn’t do them.” If choosing a new name does that, than why not?

As an amusing aside, one of the best (and only) places I’ve seen to find out what people think about your name is Urban Dictionary, although it tends to be overly flattering. But you can see descriptions of names you search and how people vote for or against them, which provides some interesting insight into common perceptions people have about a given name.