What’s In A Name? Society’s Biases, Apparently

In a trendy hookah-lounge-slash-Japanese-restaurant in Los Angeles, Erik Bezauri, né Estrada, reclines in a booth, taking bites of his The Way You Make Me Eel Roll between animated sentences. Bezauri has been here before, but this is the first time he’s dined here using his new surname.

“I’ve been wanting to change my last name for a while,” he says with resolve as he takes a long sip of lotus tea.

Bezauri remembers thinking about changing his name as early as high school, but back then, they were just that — thoughts. Now that he is a junior in college under his own roof, the idea is much more tangible, as is the looming reality that your name is as much a part of you in your career as your major, your internships, and your skill sets.

“It’s all about this concept of branding yourself,” the PR major says about his decision to separate from Erik Estrada, both his former name and the name of the famous CHiPs actor whom people often confused him with. “I was always put second to this famous actor from the 1980s,” Bezauri says, “but I’m so much more than what has already been engraved in that name.”

Bezauri’s disassociation from his given name stems from more than just society’s perception of it, though. Erik’s parents divorced when he was a child, leaving Erik to be raised by his mother. Estrada comes from his father’s side of the family, so Erik has always felt disconnected from his last name, the only thing his father left behind when he packed his bags and left. To Erik, the last name Estrada means a lack of commitment and abandonment, and he isn’t proud of it.

“[The name] Estrada was always this empty void,” Bezauri says. “As I’m getting older, I realize what that void is. I never had a great relationship with my father — it was nonexistent. I don’t feel proud to be his son.” When he talks about his absent father amidst a bustling night crowd, Erik’s voice never cracks nor does he show any hint of nostalgia. The new Erik Bezauri is not weighed down by his past or by a name that had forced itself onto him for 20 years.

Bezauri will no longer be held back by his birth name but will face new assumptions, albeit vastly different ones, associated with his meticulously chosen surname. Before he ever walks through a classroom door and greets his professors, they will have already unconsciously decided his abilities, this “Erik Bezauri”, without giving him a chance to even say hello.

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Parents seldom consider the implications of a surname when naming their children, though the repercussions of such can begin as early on as elementary school, as one study found.

Back in 2005, Professor David N. Figlio, then at the Department of Economics at the University of Florida, conducted a study to determine whether teachers treated students differently based on their names and whether this in turn translated to lower test scores. When he analyzed data from a Florida school district using three different measures for name socio-economic status, he proved his hypothesis to be true, that “teachers and school administrators expect less of children with names associated with low socio-economic status, and these diminished expectations in turn lead to reduced student cognitive performance”. With the system working against them, children from low-income households don’t stand a chance — and the data proves it.

“I can say that a portion of the black-white test score gap is apparently due to differential teacher treatment of children based on their names,” said David Figlio, the lead study author. These gaps, he notes, are in part due to the fact that a larger proportion of black families are of a lower socioeconomic status than white families.

Take Drew, Dwayne, Damarcus, and Da’Quan, for instance, four fictional boys created for the purpose of Figlio’s study. All four of these boys attend the same school, but their test scores are noticeably different. Drew, a statistically typical white name, has mathematics and reading scores up to three-quarters of a national percentile higher than Dwayne, a typical black name with no associated low socioeconomic attributes as defined in Figlio’s study. Damarcus, who has one identified low socionecomic status attribute, has 1.1 national percentile points lower math and reading scores than Dwayne. Unfortunately for Da’Quan, whose name has two low socioeconomic status attributes, his scores are three-quarters of a percentile lower than Damarcus, and thusly 1.85 percentile points lower than Dwayne.

Dwayne, Damarcus, and Da’Quan are all typical black names, but each has lower test scores on average than the next. In Figlio’s study, regardless of a student’s race, similar socioeconomic biases were observed at the Florida school district. As Figlio noted, fictional students Drew, Dwayne, Damarcus and Da’Quan represent a socioeconomic bias, but not a racial one.

“There are exclusively-white names that connote low status and exclusively-white names that connote high status, just like there are exclusively-black names that connote low status and exclusively-black names that connote high status, and the relationships are the same across the races,” Figlio said.

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These biases that begin as early as grade school will follow students for the rest of their lives, since lower test scores mean worse colleges, fewer scholarships, etc. But it doesn’t stop there. Even if a student somehow manages to fall outside the range of negative bias in grade school, they likely won’t be exempt from the name game once they reach the work force.

In one study published in the American Economic Review, two researchers sent out thousands of fictitious resumes to employers and randomly assigned white- and black-sounding names to resumes with the same credentials. Regardless of experience or even the neighborhood the applicant was from, those with white-sounding names had a significantly higher chance of being interviewed than applications with traditionally black names.

“Our results so far demonstrate a substantial gap in callback based on applicants’ names,” researchers Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan wrote in their study findings. According to the study, applicants with white names like Emily Walsh and Greg Baker received a callback for every 10 or so resumes they sent out, whereas applicants with black names like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones received callbacks for every 15 or so applications they sent. In fact, according to the research, having a traditionally white name is worth 8 additional years of work experience.

Based on the research presented thus far, it appears that our biases are primarily racial and socioeconomic. However, many of our other unconscious nominal biases have nothing to do with status at all, but another noticeable divider in the workplace — gender — and, thusly, a person’s perceived capabilities.

In South Carolina, two researchers studied the effect of having a masculine name in a legal career, and the results proved what feminists have known for decades: nominally masculine females are more likely to advance in their careers. “Just as with the racial discrimination on call-backs for resumes submitted in job applications, individuals may be more likely to get into the pool of candidates receiving serious consideration for the sorts of positions that lead to potential judgeships, i.e. getting their ‘foot in the door’, when they have a male moniker,” the study authors noted. Yet again, when an employer presumes an employee to be of a more traditionally dominant status, that employee excels.

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In 21st century America where the only names recognized as outwardly privileged are the Bushes and Vanderbilts of politics and high society, the idea that any and all names connote a certain intelligence or performance capacity may ignite feelings of confusion or even anger. But not long ago in several other sectors of the world and even in our own backyard, a surname was the difference between the status of prince and pauper, between living in a castle and living in a corral.

Leading up to and during World War II, Nazi soldiers were able to differentiate German Jews from non-Jews based on the names they assigned to the Jewish population. In 1938 the German government, at that point controlled by Hitler’s Nazi regime, passed Law #174 and ordered all Jewish citizens to assume a traditionally Jewish name for easier identification. From then on legally, every German Jew had to carry a recognizable Jewish middle name like Sarah or Israel from an officially curated list. This mandatory name change was accompanied by more than 400 other laws that not-so-subtly prevented Jews from working, going to school, and even owning houses. By the time World War II began, having a Jewish name meant life — or death — in an internment camp.

When World War II ended, the Jews who survived the brutality of the war then faced the challenge of emigrating to a new country and adjusting to a new culture, which often meant yet another name change. In the early 1900s, more than half of all those who adopted a Hungarian name were Jewish. Why a Jew would change their name was different for every situation. In many cases, Jews would change their names to blend in with their European comrades and to indicate their nationalism and avoid rousing suspicions from folk who remained weary of the nomadic Jews following the war.

Many European Jews also changed their name for the simple reason of fitting into their new home country, as many immigrants still do today — and have good reason to. In 2014, researchers from the Paris School of Economics and Stanford University sent out resumes in France with French-sounding names, North African-sounding names, and foreign-sounding names that had “no clear ethnic association” to determine whether French employers had xenophobic tendencies when combing through resumes. After sending out 3024 resumes for 504 job openings, the results showed that French applicants received 70 percent more interviews than the four other applicants who did not have French names. Similar results were found in studies conducted everywhere from Canada to Sweden to the United States; no immigrant is immune.

German Jews were able to change their names and continue their lives under the radar after the World Wars and similarly into modern day, but they were never able to change who they and their families were historically. It was Shakespeare who once wrote one of the most famous verses in history about loathing one’s own lineage in Romeo and Juliet; “O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name; / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

In the United Kingdom, one is not elected to the throne, but born into it. In 1917, King George V adopted the House of Windsor as the name for the British Royal Family, and everyone born into the Windsor family since has held royal status. Each Windsor obtains royal status the minute they are born, regardless of whether they are truly fit to reign. Just as a name denoting low socioeconomic standing determines Jamal Jones’ fate, so does Kate Middleton’s risen status as the Duchess of Cambridge.

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No matter who we are as people, those around us will always unconsciously judge us by our names one way or another. Damarcus may have an IQ of 120 and Lakisha Washington may be more qualified for a job than Emily Walsh, but when we unknowingly close the doors in front of us just by writing our name on a piece of paper, people never see our true potential. Yet it’s bleak to think that the world has made its decision, that there’s nothing we can do once our birth certificates are signed. Thankfully, some of fate still lies in our own hands.

We may not think of our middles names as anything special, but using them in intellectual situations may help us appear of a higher social status. In 2014, researchers from the Centre for Research on Self and Identity at the University of Southampton hypothesized and proved that because middle initials tend to be associated with intellectual domains like academic publications and letters sent by medical doctors, adding a middle initial to your name increases your perceived social status.

“On the basis of this common link,” the authors wrote, “the display of middle initials increases positive evaluations of people’s intellectual capacities and achievements.” In seven different studies, the researchers were able to prove that adding a middle initial to someone’s named increased the evaluation of their writing performance, perception of status, and perception of intellectual performance. Based on the results of these studies, adding a middle initial to a resume or even a college thesis could impact the perception of those reviewing it. Simply adding one letter — not even the entire name — could be the difference between an interview and a never-ending job search.

Of whom do people expect a higher intellectual capacity and performance: Jane Smith or Jane F. P. R. Smith? Who would be more admired and respected? Who would earn more? Eight studies indicate that — from the perspective of other people’s inferences — the answer is consistently “Jane F. P. R. Smith.” — Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg and Eric R. Igou

Given that using your middle initial on official documents implies a higher social standing, it would make sense that using your full name rather than your nickname would improve your career as well — but that isn’t always the case. When data science advisor Monica Rogati analyzed hundreds of millions of professionals on LinkedIn, she found that male CEOs in the United States tended to have shorter names, often shortened versions of common first names like Fred and Bill. When she spoke to a Onoastics specialist about this, he explained that “shortened versions of given names are often used to denote a sense of friendliness and openness.” In contrast, female CEOs, who constantly struggle to appear professional and fight their male counterparts for respect, use their full names.

Even if your goal isn’t to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Rogati found a nominal pattern for almost every profession. In the restaurant industry, for instance, Rogati and her team found that 8-letter names and longer like Thierry, Philippe, and Alessandro were overrepresented. In the engineering field, 6-letter names like Rajesh, Jeremy, and Andrew prevailed. If your goal is to become a restaurant manager, then, it may be wiser to use your full name, but if your aspiration is to be a CEO, you might consider using a nickname among colleagues.

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Back in the modish sushi restaurant, Erik continues to tell me about how he came to choose the name Bezauri. The task involved combing through dictionaries of Hispanic surnames, but eventually Erik found the name that suited him and his ambitions.

“It’s just like me: we’re clean slates,” Bezauri says about his new identity. “If you Google it, you won’t even find a meaning for it. This is an opportunity for me to give that last name meaning.”

By using his new name in social and academic settings, Erik has already begun to legally transition himself from Erik Estrada to Erik Bezauri, though the process in California Courts requires a bit more paperwork, including background information that ensures he is not changing his name to escape criminal charges.

If the court were to ask Bezauri his motive for changing his name, he would have a library of research to back his decision up. Bezauri would be able to tell the judge that his hand-plucked surname is strategic, as is the decision of roughly 1 in 5 women to keep their maiden name upon marriage.

Under our names, we create an identity for ourselves, both social and professional. When the time comes, then, for women to take their husband’s surname, it has become increasingly more common that they opt not to.

According to a Google Consumer Survey conducted by The Upshot, the number of women who have kept their maiden name has risen approximately 8 percent since the 1980s. This trend may be due in part to the increasing number of women entering the work force and earning advanced degrees prior to saying their vows, as several studies have shown. Using American Community Survey data from 2004, for instance, the Census Bureau determined that women with an advanced degree were up to 10 times more likely to keep their maiden names.

Educated women have a number of reasons to hold onto their maiden name. As Professor Laurie Scheuble, a senior lecturer in sociology at Penn State who has conducted several studies on marital naming, points out, several educated women earn degrees in their name and thus have already invested a lot in their own brand. And even when well-schooled women do wed and choose to take on their husband’s name, Scheuble has noticed that more recently many of them will take on their maiden name as a middle name — about 20 percent of them, Scheuble predicts — so as to maintain their former self. “This may be the compromise between hanging on to one’s identity and meeting the social norms,” Scheuble said.

In her research and own life, Scheuble has come across women of all professions who have opted to keep their last name, including several journalists who she said didn’t want to recreate a writing portfolio and reputation under a new identity. In fact, Scheuble herself held onto her maiden name after marrying her husband, whose last name is Johnson. “I think of myself as Laurie Scheuble and have always thought of myself in this way,” Scheuble said. “It is who I am. [Laurie Johnson] is completely alien to me and I have no idea who that person is.”

This is not to say that many women don’t choose to take their husband’s last name. While the number of women who keep their last name continues to rise, the traditional woman who takes her husband’s last name still reigns supreme. And when women take on a new surname, it’s a form of branding, albeit an entirely different one. Because it has been long ingrained in society to use only one last name in a family unit, many women still choose to take their husband’s names for the sake of their children. These women have redefined their priorities and thus refined their identities accordingly.

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Every one of us has a friend that doesn’t go by their given name. Perhaps they prefer to go by a nickname, or even a different name entirely with a long, complicated story behind it. Every name has a story.

Before we called the waiter over to get the check, I asked Erik what it was about the last name Bezauri that really stood out to him in his search for a new identity, beyond just this idea that he could define what his new name means. I’ve never personally had experience choosing my own name, but I can imagine a lot of thought is put into something so significant.

Erik began to answer my question. “Well, it’s kind of bizarre….” He trailed off as he started to chuckle to himself over a joke I evidently wasn’t in on. As the waiter brought the check over, he finishes his thought: “No, it’s not bizarre. It’s Bezauri.”

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