“Listen, I have to remember the normal names first,” the temp employee told me. “I’ll just use a nickname for you.”
Do you have a nickname? Captured by Canva
I was startled by his declaration. It wasn’t just that he was bold enough to tell me that my name was not “normal.” It was the irony of his last name being as complicated to pronounce as my first one. He is Chinese. I am African-American. And both groups are commonly linked to less-common names. But his response was quite possibly the boldest one I’d ever heard.
When the story behind your multisyllabic name becomes exhausting to tell
I’ve run into a fair share of names that I’ve fumbled over, largely during my college years when overseas students came in on visa programs. Memorizing the names of a Japanese friend’s social circle was a chore in itself. But because my name is my name, I’m adamant about treating other people’s names with similar respect.
When former Netflix talk show correspondent Hasan Minhaj decided he was going to start correcting people for mispronouncing his name throughout his years on “The Daily Show” and beyond, I respected it. I didn’t even wonder why he didn’t correct them sooner. I’ve been to enough Corporate America meetings and in enough business-to-consumer interactions to understand.
Imagine spending three to four minutes with a bank teller fumbling over your name when all you really want is a roll of quarters and to get out of the door as fast as possible. It’s easier to just let them butcher it, opt for using your last name (if that’s not also multi-syllabic) or provide a nickname, and then be done with it.
Long, ethnic names aren’t just problematic for resumes
Whether in the classroom or conducting business, dismissing your name can be problematic. I learned that the hard way. At my first publishing job, there was a team of writers who knew me as “Montie.” I’d told my boss that she and the editing team could call me that, and she went on to introduce me as “Montie Vaughn” to all the writers and other team members. I never approved the latter. My mindset was always that people could call me by my nickname forever, as long as they knew how to correctly pronounce my real name. However, when my boss skipped my general rule of thumb, correcting her mid-introduction would’ve made an ordeal of the situation. So, I let it slide the same way Hasan Minhaj did with his whole name.
Then came an in-person meeting with the same team of writers traveling from out of town. Although they knew they were getting edits from “Shamontiel,” in phone meetings, they’d only known the voice of “Montie.” So when I walked into the meeting and started talking to them, they were immediately confused. One writer tapped my boss and asked her if she was going to introduce “the new employee.” I looked around for the newbie and saw our regular team. The writer doubled down, stating that other editors kept talking about “Shamontiel.”
Both my boss and I figured out at the same time that I’d been going by my nickname for so long with this team that they never knew that “Montie” and “Shamontiel” were the same person. It was the first time I realized how professionally the nickname was working against me. Imagine asking for a work reference, and the reference goes, “I don’t know who that is”—all because you’re trying to dodge your multisyllabic, not “normal” name.
How similar cultures make a long name seem less of a big deal
Somehow I lucked out throughout elementary school and high school. All of my elementary school teachers were also African-American, so they were used to pronouncing a variety of names. When substitute teachers would visit, almost half the class would loudly correct the instructor about how to say my name before I could open my mouth. I got used to it.
My high school teachers nailed it, too, because not only were they learning to pronounce more Afrocentric-style names but also a sizable portion of Hispanic students with accent marks on their names. Then came the foreign exchange students who dropped in for a couple of weeks. Their names took a few tries to nail down, too.
I didn’t really realize my name was a big deal until I attended a predominantly white college. Sure, my paternal grandfather would occasionally joke about my maternal grandmother’s reaction to my name, referring to it in the hospital waiting room as “that foolish name.” But not once did my maternal grandmother ever make it a big deal to me. She just shrugged and called me by the name my mother created. In her mind, regardless of whether she liked my name or not, the point was that it was what I was to be identified by.
The brand you want and don’t want from a complicated name
When I was selected as a juror on two separate occasions, I distinctly recall the attorneys and clients in the room looking right at me while the judge fumbled over my name. It was pretty obvious that unless there was another black woman in the room, this four-syllable name was more than likely mine. I started to look around, too, just to see who they would guess as an alternative. Without saying a word, my name gives people an opinion about me already.
Every blue moon, my mother will ponder on whether she should’ve named me something else—something more common like her name, which is commonly found on souvenir gifts. She asked me once, “Do you like your name?” I hemmed and hawed for a while before coming back to the same conclusion I’d been coming to for almost 40 years. I’ve been calling myself this name for so long that it just is what it is: it’s my name. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I’ve just embraced it the same way I would my voice, my body, my face or my height.
There is one benefit to it though. In the professional world, “complicated” names make it very easy to brand yourself. I’m pretty certain anyone reading this knows exactly which Hasan Minhaj I’m talking about; they probably only know of one. In my mid-20s, when I saw a teenage boy using my first name for his own social media profiles, I was offended. How dare YOU have the same name as me? What’s your problem?
While visiting a Toastmasters club that wasn’t my home club, I remember the president telling me he looked up my name to see how many people had it. It turns out it’s more than just me and the teenager. It’s oddly popular around the Louisiana area and other southern regions. Coincidentally, my mother’s side of the family is from Shreveport. She believes she created my name, but she spent her childhood in Louisiana. Toying around with letters in my name may have been subconscious.
Image of Shreveport, Louisiana. Captured by Canva
I wasn’t thrilled to know there are more people with my namesake. It makes me uncomfortable actually. When you’re young and want to fit in, anything that sets you apart from others can be an annoyance. But as you get older and more confident, and start thinking about things like trademarking and branding and online search engines, these names that are “not normal” become everything you want them to be: yours only.
Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Shamontiel L. Vaughn. Find out more about her at Shamontiel.com.