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What’s in a Name?

Dennis Friedman

WE USUALLY HAVE Chinese food every Wednesday. It’s our weekly night out for dinner. While waiting outside our favorite restaurant for a table, I heard my wife call out, “Hey, Doe, our table is ready.” That’s what my wife calls me. It’s my new name. She used to call me Dodo. Now, she’s shortened it to Doe.

How did this nickname come about? One day, I called myself a dodo for a silly mistake I’d made. That’s all it took for me to have a new name. When I was growing up, my sister and her girlfriends used to call me Denyard and Misha. Even my mother got in the act. She’d sometimes call me Knuckle. My childhood friends called me Denny. Don’t ask me how I got these names. I have no idea, except for the obvious one, Denny.

As you can see, Doe is a lot better than some of the other names I’ve been called. It seems like a lot of folks have nicknames. My brother-in-law sometimes calls my sister Daisy. I don’t know where that came from. Some of my mother’s friends used to call her Maybell instead of her real name, Mabel. I even have a nickname for my wife, but I don’t know how to spell it, so I can’t reveal it to you.

I had a friend in elementary school whose nickname was Happy. I’m not sure how he got that name, either. When we were in high school, I called him Happy one day. He didn’t like it. He wanted to be called Brian. I get it. He wanted to be seen as an adult, not a child. Many years later, on social media, some of his friends were calling him Happy. He didn’t seem to mind. At that point, he probably liked it because he saw it as an act of kindness.

I’m like Happy. I don’t mind being called Doe by my wife. I see it as an expression of her fondness. But what if my wife and I were much younger and starting a family, we had a baby boy and we named him Doe. How would that affect his life? Would he be bullied in school for having an unusual name? Would that uncommon name affect his earnings potential because he might not be taken seriously at work?

There’s research that shows that what you name your children could have some impact on their success or failure, because it can influence how people see them. Here are four ways your name could affect your livelihood:

1. Easier-to-pronounce names. A Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study found that people had a more favorable impression of individuals who had easier-to-pronounce names than of those with difficult-to-pronounce names. The findings were independent of name length, unusualness and foreignness.

One explanation is that we tend to favor information that’s easier to comprehend. A University of California, Irvine, study also found that people with easy-to-pronounce names were viewed as more trustworthy. Meanwhile, a New York University study found that individuals who had easier-to-pronounce names often held higher positions at law firms.

2. Shorter names. In 2011, LinkedIn reviewed more than 100 million user profiles to find which names were common among CEOs. They found shorter names were the most common, such as Peter, Bob and Jack for men. It was speculated that men sometimes shorten their name to project a sense of friendliness and openness. By contrast, women used their full name, such as Deborah, Cynthia and Carolyn, to look more professional.

3. Common names. A Marquette University study suggested that common names were better liked and that such folks were more likely to be hired, while unusual names, like Doe, were less liked and these job applicants were least likely to be hired. This could be good news if you’re looking for work—and your name is James, Mary, Robert, Patricia, John or Jennifer.

4. Middle initials. Research from the European Journal of Social Psychology found folks who used their middle initial prompted others to have a more positive perception of their intellectual capacity, performance and status. Some psychologists believe it’s because initials are associated with top professions, like law and medicine. Doctors, lawyers and scientists often use their middle initial.

I’d like to think that if my wife and I had a son, we’d have named him Sam, after my father. Although I don’t put too much stock in the above studies, Sam is short and easy to pronounce. More important, it sounds like someone who is hard working and blue collar, like my father was. Unfortunately, you don’t hear that name very often anymore. The last time I heard the name Sam, it was when my neighbor was calling his dog.

Dennis Friedman retired from Boeing Satellite Systems after a 30-year career in manufacturing. Born in Ohio, Dennis is a California transplant with a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA. A self-described “humble investor,” he likes reading historical novels and about personal finance. Check out his earlier articles and follow him on Twitter @DMFrie.

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