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The ELAM Blog What's in a Name?

Afrah A. Ali, MBBS: ELAM Blog Author

Afrah A. Ali, MBBS

September 21, 2020

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The famous words spoken by Juliet in the Shakespeare drama Romeo and Juliet imply that names are meaningless. However, I would argue that this statement is incorrect.

An individual’s name represents their identity, culture and an origin that explains their story. It is often the first introduction we have. It can influence not only impression formation but also your potential future. Numerous studies have shown this is evident in the name-pronunciation effect, which implies that easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names.

Individuals with difficult-to-pronounce names may experience name-based microaggressions. These microaggressions capture the subtle discriminatory comments that minority individuals experience based on first and last names that are of ethnic origin.

These may appear as:

  • Assigning an unwanted nickname: This is usually done by shortening a cultural name so it sounds more Westernized.
  • Assumptions and biases about an individual based on their name: Studies have shown that people who have a foreign name or an African American name are less likely to get a call back for a job interview.
  • Teasing from peers and educators due to the cultural aspect of the name.
  • Persistently mispronouncing a cultural name.

These microaggressions may lead to negative experiences, resulting in anxiety and resentment towards an individual's own name. The resentment toward that name can ripple down to an individual's culture, heritage and world view, negatively affecting their social and emotional well-being.

In order to minimize these microaggressions, and to promote inclusivity among individuals in an institution or organization, it is important to respect an individual’s name and the culture associated with it. I prefer others to ask how I pronounce my name. Seeing someone put in the effort to place emphasis and inflections appropriately makes me feel respected and included. You can also ask someone how to pronounce their name phonetically and write that down so you remember. Avoid assigning a nickname to an individual for your own convenience.

Dale Carnegie rightly states, “A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” I would like to ask you: How would you feel if you experienced name-based biases? 

Afrah A. Ali, MBBS
(Pronounced uh-f-r-uhh aa-lee)
University of Maryland School of Medicine

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ELAM is a core program of the Institute for Women's Health and Leadership at Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pa. The Institute continues the legacy of advancing women in medicine that began in 1850 with the founding of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, the nation's first women's medical school and a predecessor of today's Drexel University College of Medicine.