How Names Influence Intercultural Interactions

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?


2 Responses to How Names Influence Intercultural Interactions

  1. Robert MacDonald says:

    Hi JoAnne,

    When we arrived in Russia in 2000, my wife cautioned me that her friends were confused by my name, Robbie, my name from my Scottish parents. Larissa said her friends heard Rabbi, and were surprised she had married one of the Chosen People.

    Throughout the years the Russians have expected a patronymic which I don’t have. It sounds to them like an incomplete sentence when I say my name. Now I tell bureaucrats and friends, my name is Robert Robertovich MacDonald. It’s accurate as my father was Robert, too. Now people think I am a complete individual!

    I’m happy to read interesting things when visiting your blog.

    Robert Robertovich

    • JMS says:

      Hi Robert Robertovich! :) Great example, thanks for sharing! You hit the nail right on the head with the fact that your name sounded “incomplete” and how you made the transition to a “complete individual.” I’ve had people ask me what my patronymic was and they just couldn’t understand that I didn’t have one. Even if I use my father’s name it sounds silly to me. As an English teacher I told them to just call me by my first name and this wasn’t too difficult for students because it added to the cultural environment and how native English speakers often address one another. Glad you enjoy the blog! I’m enjoying yours as well!

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