Whether positive or negative, a person’s name is a big source of their identity. They might be named after a loved one or have a famous surname they’re proud of. Or they may have an unusual or hard to pronounce name which leads to teasing or bullying.
When you live abroad or engage with people from another culture, the issue of names can cause uneasiness, cultural gaffes or communication problems. Depending on a person’s native language and culture, their name may be difficult to pronounce. Many immigrants to the United States were known to Anglicize their surnames in an attempt to assimilate. While living in Russia, I met several Asians who went by Russian names simply because theirs were too difficult for Russians to say correctly.
I also had slight problems pronouncing my friend Natasha’s name. Likewise she couldn’t say my name 100% correctly. I got used to hearing my name pronounced a myriad of ways. I also found that no one called me by the nicknames that were used with my family and close friends in the United States.
In Russia the use of different names is used to show respect. For older people one should address them using their first name and patronymic. For close friends, it’s appropriate to use nicknames to show affection. In other cultures, surnames are more important than first names.
Some names aren’t easily translated because certain sounds don’t exist in another language. Or perhaps a name is similar to a word in another language, lending itself to humor. For example, an Australian friend and colleague in Russia named Scott was ridiculed because in Russian “skot” (скот) means “cattle” and can be used pejoratively.
Hearing your name or nickname pronounced correctly can lend a sense of comfort, a feeling that you are at home, among friends. Therefore it’s easy to see how names can raise some interesting intercultural issues.
What other issues can arise from misunderstandings or differences in names? Have you ever had any mishaps that stemmed from one’s name? How are names used in your country?