Names have always held a lot of significance – especially to Africans – but what exactly makes names so important? As Laham, Koval, Alter (2011) put it, ‘names are rich sources of information. They can signal gender, ethnicity, or class; they may connote personality characteristics ranging from warmth and cheerfulness to morality.’ So, do names act simply as signals or do they have a greater effect? In a country like Nigeria with a plethora of unique names from approximately 250 ethnic groups, what effect does one’s name have?
In an ethnically charged nation such as Nigeria, names hold a significant level of power. Your name decides whom you can get married to, what church you belong to, what job you get, if and where you can be elected (heck, it’s part of what got our current president elected). Traditional names are also chosen for the (mostly religious) meanings they hold: unlike in the West where one can be called ‘Table’! Lastly, the importance of names in Nigeria emanates from one of our most popular questions: “Do you know who I am?!”
Let’s leave Nigeria for a minute to get some empirical research on the effect of a name. In the US, studies have shown that racial names do affect the likelihood of getting a job. A study showed that job applicants with white names are 50% more likely to get a callback compared to those with African-American names. And yes, several other studies such as these have been conducted with similar results. Moral is, a name does have power: economic power in this case.
So, what sort of name guarantees one the highest likelihood of a callback in Nigeria? Given the level of ethnic discrimination in Nigeria, perhaps an ethnically-agnostic name could be more likely to get a callback on a job compared to an ethnic name: Rowlanda Fredricks or Nneka Chukwudifu? Maybe the inability to place the ethnic group makes one less likely to be discriminated against. However, wouldn’t this also annul any positive discrimination an ethnic name might afford one? A Yoruba man might be more likely to skip past a potential hire’s name if it isn’t clearly Yoruba.
I’d wager that one’s name could be a liability outside of the geographical location of one’s ethnic group. Tunde, a Yoruba man is more likely to be discriminated against in Kaduna than he is in Ekiti. Inversely, is a name that’s indigenous to its location more likely to land one a job? Obviously, Musa would have a higher chance of landing a job in Kaduna or even Abuja given the ethnic composition of the North.
So what happens with cosmopolitan areas? Is a Hausa lad more likely to be discriminated against in Port Harcourt or Lagos? Maybe the cosmopolitan nature of these places increases the probability of diversity and thus reduces the likelihood of an Hausa job seeker running into a prejudiced employer.
Within Nigeria, do popular names like Chinedu, Mohammed or Seun make one more likely to be remembered? Or does the generic nature of such names make one more forgettable? Also, what makes a name likable?I know many that would argue that some names belong to ‘Houseboys’ (Monday?) or ‘Housegirls’ (Ekaette?), while other names signal a person from an influential family. Do these names then affect how the person is treated and what opportunities are open to the person?
Now let’s get outside of Nigeria again: how does it affect one’s chances at success abroad? Is an ethnic name more likely to make one stand out? Definitely. Standing out through one’s name confers a (certainly undeserved) initial advantage of being remembered, as opposed to the poor chaps whose names are easily forgotten. For example, fellow students in my school were more likely to know my name than I knew theirs simply cause my name was different. This could be an important advantage, depending on how well one uses it.
Inversely, the uniqueness and difficulty of pronouncing an ethnic name might be detrimental to one’s future. Five studies provide evidence for the name-pronunciation effect: easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names. Consequently, the easier one’s name is to pronounce, the more likely one is to be favored. Unsurprisingly, this also applies to promotion at work. Laham, Koval, & Alter (2011) find that those with more easily pronounceable names occupied superior positions within their firm hierarchy. (Good luck with names like Oluwakanyinsola).
Furthermore, bearing a traditional name abroad might make life at young age difficult. A student could be bullied for his/her ‘funny sounding’ name, and as trivial as it sounds, bullying does have a significant effect on the academics of a student. Back in Primary School in Lagos, Aguda, a classmate’s name was ‘Amala’. Her name might have been innocuous where she was from, but in a Yoruba populated area like that, it surely put her at the wrong end of numerous jokes.
Perhaps the difficulties that come with traditional names partly explain why a number of Nigerians (majorly Christians) have English names besides their ethnic names or have shortened versions of their traditional names. ‘Chidera’ becomes ‘Chi’, ‘Obiageli becomes Oby’, ‘Adetokunbo’ becomes ‘Tee-K’. Likewise, many Asians adopt Western names once they find themselves in the West: it simply makes life a lot easier (imagine having to pronounce ‘He Zhou’). Who knew names could be so complicated?
How else do we think our names affect our chances at success: academically, socially or financially? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.