When Jessica Simpson recently named her baby daughter Maxwell, there were sighs of sympathy across the country. Buffy Martin Tarbox, for instance, can feel her pain. Her father had only the best intentions when he chose his baby daughter's name – he was inspired by a folk singer and a childhood friend. Four decades later, the sweet name he chose for his bouncing baby girl may not have worked out as planned.
“I can affirmatively say my name has put me at a disadvantage,” Tarbox says. “Just last month, I applied for a media relations position and was told that members of the hiring committee were impressed with my qualifications and experience but didn’t want to hire me because ‘no one respects a Buffy.’”
While it is silly to judge someone based on a name they never chose for themselves, we do it every day. “We can’t help but form an image of people based on their name,” says Laura Wattenberg, name expert and author of The Baby Name Wizard. “Names carry information about your age, sex, race, what part of the world or part of the country you come from, and they might suggest things about your socioeconomic background.”
That’s what Julia Kube of the University of Oldenburg surmised when she studied how first names affect educational opportunities. She found that teachers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were prejudiced against names that are associated with low socioeconomic backgrounds. (The worst offenders? Kevin and Chantal.)
A recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science took this research further, looking at the success of online daters with popular names vs. unpopular names. Poor Kevin and his other lowly named cohorts were passed over far more often than the dashingly named Jakobs and Alexanders, and these so-called negative names were even associated with lower self-esteem, more smoking and less education.
The Sun Will Come Out Tamar-o Can a name really have that much impact? “If you have a happy, healthy, well-adjusted family, an unusual name is not going to make a difference at all in the large picture,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Sujatha Ramakrishna, MD, who has experienced more name-pronunciation issues than most (and was routinely called Siddhartha at med school).
Some, though, do find that their name affects their life well into their adult years. “I hate going to parties or anywhere I have to network,” says Tamar “No, There’s No ‘A’ on the End” Kummel, an actress and licensed massage therapist. “I do not introduce myself — ever. I hate going through the explanation or correcting people, and that’s definitely held me back.”
Tarbox, too, has tired of her name, especially when it’s led to assumptions that she’s vapid. “There were definitely times in my life when I considered changing my name or using my middle name Gail, but it’s challenging to change your name, and there is a part of me that rather enjoys confronting assumptions and showing people that this Buffy means business,” she says.
The Name Game (Is Not A Game) Even if you pull a Jason Lee and decide that Pilot Inspektor is the right choice, you’re probably not going to totally screw your kid up for life with name alone, but you could make things needlessly difficult. So how do you choose wisely? And how can you tell the future — like if you name your kid Kevin (which is pretty normal in the U.S.) and then he goes to live in Germany and no one talks to him again?
Here’s a tip: cut back on the kooky. “A lot of us are getting too carried away with trying to be distinctive,” Wattenberg says. “Having a common name has never ruined people’s lives. Look at presidents and business leaders — pretty often, they have the common names of their time. Popular just means well-liked and non-controversial. The more you try to choose something that seems to have a really strong style to you, the more that style may turn someone else away.”
But what about being distinctive? I appreciated going through school without having another Haley as a classmate. But think of the flipside, Wattenberg says. If you have a one-of-a-kind name and “at the age of 16 you did something silly that got on the Internet, you can’t escape it for the rest of your life.”
Here’s another tip: stay away from these gems, all in the Ancestry.com database: Ivana Tinkle, Mustard M. Mustard, Lust T. Castle, Good Dog, and Doctor Love.
And think about Tamar Kummel. When she was in high school a couple came to her for advice - they were deciding between Tamar and Shira for their baby.
“I spent 10 minutes imploring them to not go with Tamar. And at the end of the day, they went up to my father and said they were so impressed with me, they decided to name their kid Tamar,” Kummel remembers. “Twenty years later, I still feel sad for that kid, out there somewhere with an idiotic name.”
Haley Shapley is a writer based in Seattle. She was named after a little girl in a department store commercial.