Many people from refugee and migrant backgrounds are given an anglicised name by their family, or voluntarily choose to anglicise their name when they move to a different country.
Anglicising one’s name is the act of adopting Anglo-sounding names like Tom or Tiffany, or changing the pronunciation or spelling of one’s original name to better suit English speakers. There are different reasons as to why this is a vastly common practice, mainly due to the (social and emotional) “cost” associated with having an “ethnic-sounding” name.
Making it easier for you. And for me
One of the biggest drivers for someone to use a more “English-friendly” name is convenience. They don’t want to deal with the discomfort of saying or spelling their name over and over, or teaching people how to pronounce it multiple times every day.
“It is tiring to have to repeatedly explain how to pronounce my Vietnamese name, that’s why I decided to adopt an English name. While it does make it easier for other people, it’s more about me not having to deal with all that hassle.” – Hong
The pressure to fit in and be accepted
Adopting an English-sounding name is not a recent practice. Many post-war migrants who came to Australia Anglicised their names to try to “fit in”.
Moving to a new country, people from refugee and migrant backgrounds are expected to assimilate into Australian culture. This often means conforming to Eurocentric standards of names, languages, accents, clothing, food, and so on.
An effort to avoid casual racism
Have you ever been told your name is not easy to say, spell or remember, or asked to shorten, or change it into a more Anglo-sounding name?
These are microaggressions, which can include names being mispronounced, misspelled, misunderstood, or mocked. Being exposed to this might lead to distress and negative emotions such as embarrassment, self-shaming, fear, and anxiety. People with an ethnic-sounding name may also experience being avoided, excluded, or overlooked. This has an especially harmful impact on young people, who are at a very sensitive age and trying to build their sense of identity and belonging.
Many RMCC parents, especially those who live in a predominantly homogeneous neighbourhood, have shared their unpleasant, sometimes traumatic, experiences with racism and xenophobia. Giving their children a name that’s easy to pronounce and accepted as the norm, therefore, is an effort to shield them from discrimination.
Am I not qualified, or…?
Despite being a highly inaccurate indicator of one’s capabilities or proficiency of the English language, a foreign-sounding name can still negatively affect one’s employment. Name bias discrimination, where negative judgements and assumptions are made based on a person’s name, can occur in all aspects of a workplace, including recruitment, networking and promotional opportunities.
A famous study conducted by the Australian National University showed that job seekers with ethnic sounding names find it much harder to get a job than those with Anglo sounding names. Applicants with Middle Eastern or Chinese names were shown to submit 64 to 68 per cent more applications than an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name to get the same number of interviews.
People with ethnic-sounding names are also less likely to be promoted. A New York University study found that people with “easier-to-pronounce names often had higher-status positions at work”, which is known as the “name pronunciation effect.” (1) Researchers are convinced that “a white-sounding name is worth as much as eight years of work experience.” (2)
Beyond a name
Our name is an important part of our identity. It contributes to the way the world views you. While it differentiates you from others, it can also help you connect with others. Different parts of the world have their own distinct naming methods and practice, and one’s name can often reflect notions of gender, culture, religion, language, and family history.
For example, in Indian culture, your name indicates your caste and where you come from. Chinese people, on the other hand, name their children by combining two or three characters that represent the characteristics they hope their children will possess.
“Up until I was 10, my name was Arghavan, which in Farsi refers to a beautiful purplish flower. Then my dad changed it into Eva. Growing up, other kids would make fun of our names, and people would complain how difficult it is to pronounce it. And dad didn’t want me to be discriminated against in my future career because of my name. So I understand his decision. But if I could go back in time, I would have chosen to keep my birth name Arghavan” – Eva
As more and more people choose to keep their ethnic name to honour their identity, it’s important for us to learn how to pronounce their name correctly. Not only is it a common courtesy but it also shows your effort to respect someone and their culture, and make them feel they belong.
Here are some tips to help you get it right:
- • Ask the person to pronounce it — and actively listen.
• Ask them to clarify/remind you if you don’t catch it the first time, or forget how to pronounce their name.
• Repeat after them once or twice, and ask if you’re saying it correctly.
• Avoid making unnecessary comments about how complicated/difficult/uncommon their name is.
• Don’t ask if you can shorten their name or give them a nickname.
• If you mispronounce someone’s name, simply apologise and ask for the correct pronunciation.
We all have the power to promote a diverse, inclusive, and accepting culture, starting with learning how to pronounce one’s ethnic name. It follows by challenging our name-based biases and stereotypes, learning to look at someone beyond their name and appreciating the cultural and social contributions they make to our society.
(1) The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 48, Issue 3, May 2012, Pages 752-756.
(2) Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No.9873.