On Names, Titles, and (Pre)association

Before you begin: If you are wondering why you are mentioned in this note, but do not feel like reading half an essay, the reason is listed at the end.

There seems to be a correlation between names and how we view people. Whether that be because a name is easy or more difficult to remember, pronounce, or spell, or whether that be because we associate certain things with certain names I can not definitively say. However, not having all the facts has never stopped anyone from arguing a point, and so let’s me and you explore that thinking a little.

It would seem unreasonable to assume things about someone based on first impressions, but as we all do (and indeed cannot help doing so), I am going to consign that incongruity in our rationale to the stipulated facts in this case and move forward to the heart of the matter. Beyond appearances, which are a whole other ball of wax in and of itself, a person’s name is one of the first things we learn about them. A person’s name is his or her label. A name is an important part of who you are and can even have bearing on your self image. Ironic then, that we do not choose our own names and must trust our parents to do so despite the fact that the name they are given us may not be the name we may have wanted. (point of order: I like my name just fine, it’s the pronunciation some people have issues with. Their problem – not mine.)
Even though I hint here at a larger theme, I will not be discussing the hows and the whys of naming a child. If that is something you are interested in, there is suggested reading at the end of this text. What I will say however is this. Suppose you meet someone new in a neutral setting. This person you know nothing about extends a hand and introduces herself. Her name is Katie. It is highly probably in this day and age that you, with your hundreds of Facebook friends, Myspace contacts, and Twitter Bugs already have a friend named Katie, or at least know someone named Katie. Therefore, this new(est) Katie maybe Katie #2, 3 or even 10. That means your brain has already formed associations tied to that label. Your brain, being wholly unable to not think, immediately draws forth, both consciously and subconsciously all the files related to the word ‘Katie.’ This is a problem. Suppose the Katie(s) you already know are all the nicest, sweetest, most beautiful women imaginable. You may even have dated, or be dating, a Katie of your very own! What now of imagery and associations?

It is my experience that whenever I meet someone with a name I already have stashed in my memory, old feelings re-emerge associated with that name. I happen to know 4 Katies already, so the 5th would (in this case) benefit tremendously from my positive disposition to her name, as the Katies I know are indeed all those things I mentioned above. You may think that having a positive disposition to someone new might be a good thing and I am inclined to agree with you however, it is important to realize that I am not trying to write a self-help guide to meeting new people, but am in fact attempting to explore the very odd nature inherent in all of us.
In my example, Katie #5 is benefiting from my positive predisposition. What if the 4 other Katies I knew were cold-hearted she-devils from the depths of hell, all of whom are ex wives of mine and left me with nothing but shattered dreams. Aha! Now my associations with the name Katie may not be so favorable. Maybe now, even as I shake her hand, Katie #5 notices an involuntary twitch in my neck even as she speaks her name to me for the first time. Will this affect the manner in which I view her? Will it continue to affect it should I befriend her, or worse still, prevent me from befriending her based solely on previous memories associated with the label she carries as well, through no fault of her own? Opinions, naturally, vary wildly on the subject. I have had people tell me a person’s name has no bearing on their feelings towards that person. Others swear that names can be right or wrong for a person based on all manner of factors. (“you don’t look like a Katie”) Still others think I am a strange, strange little man for troubling my head which such thoughts. Nevertheless, the thought eats at me.

As it happens, Katie #5, thus far, is every bit as charming and lovely as the other Katies I have met. Given that I am by no means a socialite, and thus do not have a quadruple digit friends list, we can safely assume some of you may know even more Katies than I. Perhaps you can relate. One thing however rings out to me clear as a bell: a person’s name has an affect on us, IF we know someone by that name already. What if you meet someone whose name you have no associations with at all? What if you meet someone whose name you have never even heard spoken on TV, seen written in a book, or knew existed at all?
If we replace Katie with Henderidan for instance, it would be unlikely you have heard that name before, as I just made it up. Would a person with that name be free of pre-associated notions about his name – the label he carries? I think so, yes. However, would he not suffer from an entirely different problem? Namely, the fact that because the name is so unique, it stands out. I can already imagine him growing rapidly weary of having to repeat his name three times everywhere he goes and with every person he meets. “How do you spell that?” will be a freakishly common phrase uttered to him, and as such his name may have negative connotations to himself thereby altering his disposition towards meeting new people. This may also go to explain why children befriend each other so easily – total lack of previous connotation and little capacity for it to begin with. I miss being 6-years-old… life was simpler then.
The real trouble however starts when a doubly negative situation presents itself, as in the following example. John and Jane meet at a convention. John’s ex wife is called Jane, and he lost his house, his kids, his dog, and his favorite law ornament to her in the divorce. We can safely assume John has a negative predisposition towards the name Jane. Jane however knows 2 other Johns, one being her great grandfather whose unconditional love and exceptional lust for life still echo clearly in her fond memories of him. The other is her best friend who she has known since elementary school. We can assume she has a distinctly positive predisposition to the name John. After shaking hands at said convention, John and Jane know nothing of each other aside from their names and the fact they are in the same building. What direction will their conversation take? Will their names be forgotten or dismissed as irrelevant, or will are do they weigh heavily on John’s mind? or Jane’s? or perhaps both?
It is inherently appealing to believe we are above this sort of petty influence, just as it is inherently difficult to disassociate ourselves from our memories and emotions. We assume things about the world around us, as it is not possible to know everything. To assume is a natural process, and helps us fill in troublesome gaps in our understanding. Sometimes, assumptions can be incredibly useful and may help lead us to where we want to go. Other times, most often when our assumptions are horribly wrong, they cause problems both small and great.
In the example above, where John meets Jane, my assumption is that the weight of memories associated with both names will have a significant impact on the relationship of these two people (even if that relationship goes no further than the talk they have at the convention!) John’s assumptions about Jane meanwhile could scarcely be accurate, as neither his ex wife, nor the Jane in our example chose their names themselves, thus it having little to no bearing on who they are. Likewise, Jane’s assumptions of John may ill prepare her for what a massive jerk John is! (after all, his wife did leave him and a judge decided she got the kids, the dog, the house AND that lawn ornament!)
So, in essence, though our names are what we go by, and are a major part of us for as long as we live, they are incredibly poor indicators towards other people of who we really are. Sadly, as we cannot control who gets what name beyond those of our own children, other people may be out there, soiling your good name in the minds of others, by going through life with an identical label. Accepting this as yet another of the stipulated facts, written in stone, my advise to all of you is this:

Feel free to judge a book by its cover, if you must, but remember that the reason a book has so many pages is that a title can only tell you so much about it.

I wish you all a very good Wednesday, wherever you may be. I think well of all of you.

suggested reading and related material:

Freakonomics by Steven D.Levitt and Stephen J.Dubner
The Drizzt books by R.A.Salvatore
The Big Book of Baby Names by Stacey McIntosh.

and for a real treat:

The Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language
(flip open to a random page and count the number of words listed there.
Now count the ones you really knew the meaning of.
Now count the ones you use in daily conversation.
Now look how thick the book is.
Oh my! perhaps you can find some new words to call your own to aid people in associating you with words other than the ones we cling to.


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