My Coffeeshop Name

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I was listening to one of NPR’s podcasts the other day and they were talking about a topic that I personally like a lot: names. So my name is Hully, my mom chose it when she was a teenager after reading it somewhere and then convinced my dad to name their first daughter Hully. That’s the story. Even though it should be a simple name — H-u-l-l-y — people simply don’t get it right, specially in my country. This article is about how your name can make your life easier (or not).

“yes, I had to spell it”

This episode was about the article “How Do You Say Your Name? Difficult-To-Pronounce Names and Labor Market Outcomes”, in which the authors test for labor market discrimination based on name fluence. They wanted to see if difficult-to-pronounce names are less likely to get better jobs. To do so, they use a sample of economics PhD job candidates applying for an academic or tenure-track position. The results suggest that there is indeed a statistical significant discrimination against individuals with names that are hard to pronounce and this effect is actually large in magnitude.

In fact, there are lots of studies about how names may reveal cultural background, for example. Of course the most obvious association is obviously associated to the language: Chinese names indicate that the person is from an Chinese family. However, names can also work as a signal of social status. In Brazil, for example, translated versions of American pop stars’ names and the ones including letters such as Y and W (recently added to the Brazilian alphabet) are generally associated to lower-class names.

A couple of years ago, I ran an experiment during Brazilian 2016 Mayoral Election to test if voters’ names could influence the candidates’ responsiveness. At first, I wanted to test whether women were more discriminated against than man, regardless their social status. I mean, there are not so many women in politics, right? The results showed, in turn, that lower-class male voters were the most discriminated against and women actually got a high level of positive responses (sometimes in bad ways, unfortunately).

The design of this experiment was quite simple. Candidates’ email address is public information. I wrote a simple message saying something like “Hi, my name is [voter’s name] and I would like to volunteer in your campaign. How can I help you?”. Voters’ names were selected according to previous studies about Brazilian population (see table below). 8 different fake email accounts were created to send the message. The sample of candidates was randomly split among the fake voters, so that each candidate received only one email. 691 emails were sent.

This was my first experiment ever (!!!). Simple, but with insightful results.

The list of studies about this topic is huge — if you search for “name discrimination” on Google Scholar, you will get more than 2 million results. So if you intend to have children, make sure to go over some of this articles before choosing a name. Of course that things like ethnicity and gender are more difficult to “neutralize”, but you could easily choose a name that is in a better alphabetic position, for example.

The effects of having a name early in the alphabet start in school due to the primacy effect, that is, the first piece of information an individual is presented with retains more importance in their mind. So individuals with names that are ranked earlier in the alphabet, appearing first on registers, may be subconsciously treated more favorably. And this is gonna happen many times throughout life. Imagine your child runs for senator and voters have to go through a list with 40 candidates sorted alphabetically… It is obvious who’s is likely to get more votes, isn’t it?

My relationship with my name has changed over the years. When Starbucks launched its first store in Brazil, I used to say my sister’s name in my coffee orders. Back them, I hated it when people could not pronounce my name right, so I just used hers. Everything changed when I realized that I could capitalize my name since its retention rate was much higher than my friends’ names, for example. Today, I actually like it a lot.

Nice to meet you, I’m Hully.

References

Are Women Discriminated against in politics? evidence from Brazilian 2016 Mayoral Elections (Rolemberg, 2017)

How Do You Say Your Name? Difficult-To-Pronounce Names and Labor Market Outcomes (Ge and Stephen, 2022)

Positive and negative connotations of unconventionally and conventionally spelled names (Mehrabian and Piercy, 1993)

Um nome para o bebê (Barbosa, 1984)