Americans can’t say your name — That doesn’t mean you should change it
Growing up, I didn’t like my name. Boys like to fit in, and ‘Hamish’ was a name for really small dogs or really big cows, not people.
Here are some Hamish’s:
I didn’t love my name when I was in Scotland, but at least everyone knew how to say it.
And then I moved to the United States, where they have been getting my name wrong for 24 years.
I can’t tell, just by someone’s age, or background, whether they’ll wreck ‘Hamish’ or not. The problem isn’t that it’s unusual, but that it’s so close to ‘Amish’ that Americans hear that first.
Sure, there is a small number of people here who know how to say my name straightaway. But that means we have to have a conversation about the time he went to Scotland. And saw a really big cow with my name.
(And really, all I want to do is pay for my bottle of fino sherry and get back home.)
These days, I go in strong with my name.
Big eye contact, high volume, and maybe a facial expression that says, “You’re the one who’s going to look dumb if you make me repeat myself.”
I like to imagine a group of Americans I’ve recently met getting together just so they can talk about how loud Hamish is. And how scarily intense.I tell you all that so that you’ll believe me when I say:
I understand why you’re tempted to change your name when you’re working with Americans.
I get the same smile from new students when I ask their name. I get the “…but you can call me…”
You don’t want your name to be a source of confusion, a distraction. You want to fit in.
I understand that.
But don’t be so quick to adopt an American name — think it over.
Your name probably isn’t the first clue that you’re not from here.
I train taxi drivers here in Nashville. Most of these drivers are from African and Middle-Eastern countries, and a lot of them have names that are unfamiliar to the natives here. And we talk about it, right at the top of the class. It’s a relevant topic for Southern Culture, because these drivers are meeting new people every single day.
What do they do with a name that Nashville folks can’t pronounce?
Choosing a common American name won’t magically transform your cultural identity.
Like I tell my drivers — there are bigger issues at play than your name. Like the way you present yourself, your body language, your smile, your eye contact. If you don’t adapt all of those things, then just changing your name could make you seem even more foreign.
Your given name can sound different — and different is okay.
Yes, America doesn’t like to be confused or saying things that makes her feel stupid, but Different is memorable, it can help you stand out. If you want to make it easier, that sounds fair, but don’t get carried away. Choosing a common American name won’t magically transform your cultural identity.
Being called ‘Brenda’ or ‘Doug’ in the US is not going to be a competitive advantage.
There’s also a chance that picking an ‘American’ name will just make things worse.
Here are some examples of names chosen by Chinese students.
I know, you’re smarter than that, you won’t change your name to Dr. Pepper or Panera Pick 2.
I also know that sometimes you might not have much choice, like when a student from Taiwan told me:
My name is Shūfēn, but you can call me Joan.
It was the American company she works for that told her to choose an American name from their list, and she seemed okay with her choice. But it still felt a little off when I complimented ‘Joan’ on her wedding photos or the Taiwanese pineapple cakes she posted on Instagram. So we agreed to go with Shūfēn. Since that’s her name. Be careful when you try to make your name easier for English-speakers.
A Russian client told me:
My name is Arseniy, but you can call me Arse.
Now, I chose to call him Arseniy, and we had a gentle conversation about why Arse isn’t a great nickname if he wants to work with British people.
Hey, names are a sensitive topic. I understand if you want to change yours, to adapt it to something smoother. If you’re tired of getting a confused response, of having to repeat yourself right at the start of a conversation, I know you might want to solve the problem.
I can see how for some immigrants (and the children of those immigrants) choosing an American name is part of their new life. And sometimes the change more of an adaptation — taking the sound of our name and adapt it to something American; Lu to Luke or Arseniy to Arsenio.
But it’s worth thinking about why you’re changing your name. Is it for them or for you?
When we think of our personal brand, when we consider what makes us interesting and memorable to others, an unusual name can be an advantage.
So let me suggest the Starbucks Rule.
1. Is this a one-off conversation?
2. Does the success of this transaction depend partly on them getting my name right?
If the answer to both of these questions is YES, it’s worth using an American name.
If I’m getting coffee or ordering lunch from a food truck — if I’m doing something where they ask for my name and it’s a one-off, then I’ll use James, which Americans get straightaway, and also happens to be the same as Hamish, just the English-version.
If the answer to both questions is NO, then why are you changing your name?
If I’m saying hello in business or with new friends, then it has to be Hamish. Because that’s my actual name, and I don’t think I’m setting the bar all that high, asking them to put hay and mish together.
For a business relationship, I’m not faking it. For friends and family, I’m not letting them off the hook. And hey, just maybe, neither should you.
Lastly, it’s time for us to show a little more confidence in America’s ability to learn new names.
Shūfēn? I think America can handle Shu-fen.
If your name is unusual (for the United States), they won’t get it right first time. But I have good news — they really want to use your name. They want to use it all the time.
So if they get it wrong, help them out and repeat it. I have met so many foreign-based professionals who have adopted an ‘American’ name or nick-name, and I know it’s tiring when people repeatedly fail to say your name properly, but don’t compromise so quickly. You have a chance to open just the smallest window into your own culture and identity.
So when they get it wrong, when they give you that puzzled look, repeat it, smile, let them take another swing. And remember to give them a bigger smile when they actually get it right.