What’s in a name?
Claiming my pronouns and giving grace to others
Our names can reveal important clues about who we are, our age, ethnicity, or social class, for example, that can affect how we’re treated by others. Exploring research on names is fascinating in itself. I started looking (futile!) for the data on how many people are called a name they’d rather not be called and the impact of that on our engagement and performance. What is undeniable is that our given (and our preferred) name are wired deeply inside our brains. Some of us hate our given names and change them, others shift how we refer to ourselves. The importance of names is underlined by authors, who can deliberate for hours, days or weeks to get the right name for the characters in books.
A catalyst for my thoughts
A social media exchange with a new follower recently, included a suggestion that I claim my pronouns and intersections. My ponderings and musings led me to appreciate that I’ve used my personal privileges to choose to use my name to confuse. My given name had negative things associated with it. So as a teenager, I shortened it. Not that I was aware initially that Jan could be male or female. But my German penfriend woke me up to this and we had many laughs about it, all in writing of course.
Later, using a gender-neutral name, I wanted to challenge people’s assumptions about me. ‘I am who I am’. Don’t judge. Don’t hold me back. Let me be me. And so I have come to realise that indeed, it was all about me. A total lack of sensitivity towards the confusion and embarrassment I caused some, by not being able to fit me into a box. I revelled in the initial surprise in meetings with clients and partners. But also, I enjoyed fun and laughter with others.
Essentially it was about me and others’ assumptions. Don’t try to limit my role or constrain my existence by what you think I should or shouldn’t be or do.
Women in STEM: using your name to hide or stand out?
As a woman working in STEM, facing comments and jibes from the technicians whilst designing and building my solar simulator for my PhD, there was plenty of daily banter and sexism as my designs evolved and my learning of what was required or possible grew. The nude pin-ups, the jokes at my expense and ripostes back, all underpinned by their confusion about why we ‘girls’ wanted to do a PhD anyway. It was just part of the workshop landscape.
“I don’t know why they let you girls do PhDs, you just run off and have babies”
Not that this was new to me. As a teenager I had an office job in my dad’s transport company, so the nude pin-ups were just ‘how things were’. Women were objects to be ogled, denigrated and dismissed. These are the things that lit my fire to make a difference. To have confidence and pride to stand up and stand out. And if having a gender-free name was a way to get half a step ahead, then so be it.
Genderless Jan, causing confusion
I have loved creating anonymity out of my name. It was great to hide behind the genderless Jan. And enjoy the cultural confusion and laughs when people realised I was female.
The fun was always, and to some extent still is, greatest with Dutch or Germanic colleagues. Whilst a British Science Association Media Fellow in 1990 – every time I phoned the STEM journalist’s hotline I was greeted by a hello and lively laughter from the background as the person I was speaking to said (loudly) “Hallo Jan Peters” and met with loud laughter. The office was staffed by two young guys from the Netherlands. It was always a fun call. They loved that my name was such a classic male name for them. The biggest laugh though is because in obfuscating my gender I had also created a moniker that is the equivalent of John Smith in The Netherlands. The most common male name. Apparently everyone knows someone called Jan Peter/s/son.
My PhD gave me even more opportunities for further gender anonymity. Dr Jan Peters. I imagine now it was a sense of power over others, withholding information, forcing people to hold back on judgements and assumptions and to challenge the schemas in their minds. It was my own push-back against a world that assumes gendered roles, capabilities, and potential for men and women.
In these days of sensitivity and appreciation of the importance of names, I feel I should call time on my little joke. But the reasons behind it may not yet have left this world.
Why are names so important?
Remembering someone’s name and getting it right is about courtesy, value and respect. Throughout our lives we hear this word to describe ourselves daily. We’re conditioned to respond. And if we’ve chosen to use a different version of our given name, then that too is important. Sometimes even more important.
Using someone’s name also makes a connection and opens a direct communication line. It draws people intentionally into a conversation and makes them feel wanted and valued. Never has this been more important than the era of on-line meetings. When people choose or need to participate with cameras off; whether for shyness, introversion or other reasons, it’s easy to see this as a request for invisibility. Being specific and inviting a contribution by name both gives permission to participate, indicates it’s time to participate and also says “your participation is valued”.
Names that diminish us
When people use a name for us that we don’t own, then we can feel criticized, dismissed, or not worthy. The reasons behind these feelings can vary from being told off as a child for a minor deed all the way to an extreme, traumatic time. And the need to rid oneself of that name. Even to the extent of having a name that is ‘dead to me’, as a student once said. That if nothing else should be a wake-up call for the importance of using someone’s preferred name. Out of sensitivity and respect.
Start noticing how people like to be referred to
So if you’ve never felt the need to adapt or reinvent your name, pause. Yes, there is open talk of privilege. Yes, more and more people define their pronouns. And Yes, it is not good to cause intentional discomfort to others. So use your privilege for good and share your pronouns in solidarity.
- If you are a tutor or teacher, then notice if a student has a preferred name to a registered name. Make their reports or feedback comments be their preferred name.
- If you attend meetings, then make it a habit to ask for comments by name, of anyone, so you aren’t calling out one or two people. This is a great way to include neurodiverse students or colleagues.
- And when doing introductions in meetings, start off with yourself: “I’m Dr Jan Peters, you can call me Jan, and I use she/her as my pronouns”, thereby giving others confidence in declaring theirs.
And if you do get it wrong, simply stop, apologize and move on.
Making a pledge.
So my commitment for this week is to claim my pronouns on my social media and be clearer about my support and allyship. To intervene if someone uses an incorrect pronoun for someone To take more time to be sensitive and get my pronunciations correct. In the meantime, I understand why and will work my hardest to respect your wishes and adapt and flex to a new name when you need me to.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
And as well, to add my thanks for the nudge from my follower.