Experience with changing from ethnic to non-ethnic first name?
January 8, 2014 5:43 AM   Subscribe

I have a weird ethnic first name that causes me daily hassle and anxciety. Has anyone had experience with dropping their ethnic name or do you know anyone who has done it?

My first name is exclusive to one tiny East European country and nowhere else in the world. I have lived in Scandinavia since the age of two, now I'm 27, and I feel no connection with the old country.

Whenever I introduce myself, I have to repeat my name at least twice and often I have to spell it out loud as well. More often than you would think, I also have to explain its origin and answer questions about the situation and history of my birth country. Even after this procedure, many people still don't get it. In my professional life, I experience that people don't talk to me in meetings because they don't know how to refer to me and introducing myself to new groups of coworkers is akward and time consuming. It may sound over the top, but in my personal life, it has come to the point where I generally avoid introducing myself to new people because I don't want to spend time explaining my name, repeating it, spelling it, answering questions.

I'm very much considering changing my name to the palindrome of my birth name which, coincidentally, is a common name in Scandinavia and the English speaking world. I also very much like this new name. I don't particularly like my birth name but I also don't dread it as much as I think most people who change their name do. I still want to keep my East European last name which is much more common and doesn't seem to cause much trouble beyond the occasional misspelling.

I particularly worry because my close friends are very skeptical of it because they feel that it's good to be special. In general I feel that it might weird people out that I go from an ethnic to a non-ethnic name. Do you have any experience with people's reactions to this?

By the way, the legal aspects of name change is not an issue for me.
posted by petrovski to Human Relations (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see why not. While I don't expect people stumble over my name as much as yours, I end up pronouncing it for the audience as appropriate, in English and in Spanish, and when I don't want to hassle with it, I use a very Western nickname version of my name.

If I'd had more trouble with it, I would have done the same thing as you mention, changing it to a more "me" name. When I married, I didn't drop my maiden name, and people know me either by FirstName MaidenName, FirstName MarriedName, or FirstName MaidenName MarriedName. I did this because I'd done a lot as FirstName MaidenName, and didn't want to "lose" it (although I now spend more time spelling and explaining my names than I used to).

Depending on your profession and how you are known, you might want to be listed online as
Peter Visk (Petrovski) LastName for a while, and eventually just Peter Visk LastName.
posted by tilde at 5:53 AM on January 8, 2014

You know, you really don't owe people any explanations about your name: you can skip the whole origin/history/birth country bit if you want. If you feel you must say something, just go with "it's an old family name", to be repeated as often as necessary.

And perhaps, try using your palindrome (or any other preferred name) as a nickname: introduce yourself to new people with that nickname, as well as letting current coworkers know you want to be called by that nickname. Other than the payroll department, they don't really need to know or even care what your legal name is; they just want something to refer to you by. Ditto non-work friends.

As for your family: well, you can ask them to use your new nickname, but --- especially the older folks! --- some of them will probably keep using your actual name.... but that's okay: lots of people have family names, friend names, work names and more.

(And while I have an uncommon-but-easily-spelled first name, I do understand your problem: my last name is very uncommon plus a pain to spell, and even within the family we don't agree on a single 'correct' pronunciation!)
posted by easily confused at 5:57 AM on January 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I started my graduate program, a colleague of mine already had used a western first name despite her Chinese origin and some fellow colleagues were more curious about her Chinese name and why she didn't use that instead. She said she had used her name growing up and was comfortable with it. And I would say go with what YOU are comfortable with.

On the other hand, I also have a non-western first name and I never bothered changing it or felt the need to--it's what I'm comfortable with. I try my best to pronounce it clearly when introducing myself and often times others will ask me again and again, but eventually if they find it important to remember my name it'll stick...that's not really up to you to stress about. If they get your name wrong, help them out. If they don't ask, maybe they forgot and are too embarrassed to ask again--ultimately, if these people are important they'll learn your name.
posted by wallawallasweet at 6:01 AM on January 8, 2014

I feel your pain. I hyphenated my last name when I got married and it's been a HASSLE!

If you prefer a different name, go with it! Or you can introduce yourself thusly: Hi! I'm Ruth, but you can call me Bunny.

But if you don't like your name, you don't have to live with it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:02 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: The people of the USA have a president who when through his teen years and early adulthood calling himself Barry. There is nothing that says you have to stick with the same name forever and there is no reason you can't have a nickname. Many people who live in a different culture do this. You can use a nickname for daily interactions without ever bothering to change your legal name.
posted by BearClaw6 at 6:03 AM on January 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

Do you go by a nickname now? Back in the day, here in the US, going from Shlomo to Slapsy or Mario to Mark was practically a rite of passage. I'm sure you'll get advice that tells you to train all your friends and acquaintances in pronouncing your name correctly, etc..
I think you should pick whatever name you like, including but not limited to Cosmo Rockblaster, introduce yourself that way, use it on business cards, use it as your Twitter handle, domain name and everyplace else.
When I got married, I leapt to change my voweless Czech surname to what it is now. But I still spell it for people.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:04 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a non-English first name that often causes people to stumble over it at first (though they seem to get used to it quickly enough if we interact more than once or twice). I use my English middle name as my coffee name, and I also answer to my handle here (which people pronounce as Eartha, Artha, and also ar tee aitch ay).

But sure, go ahead and say "But you can call me [othername]" when you're introducing yourself or being introduced. If your friends hassle you about it, tell them you are special whatever your name is.
posted by rtha at 6:10 AM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think as long as the decision comes from you, and not coercion, then go ahead. If you'd be happier and it makes life easier for you, and you've no huge attachment to your name then it's not really anyone's business, regardless of your friends' opinions. I work with some migrants who are 're-named' against their will, by their employers for example. "Oh we couldn't pronounce Agnieszka so we just call her Jane" kind of thing, and I really hate that. I also know what it's like to have to spell your name, and have people unable to pronounce it, but I like my name so that's different. If you're just worried about what other people think then I'd say do what you like and let them worry about their own reactions.
posted by billiebee at 6:10 AM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do you have any experience with people's reactions to this?

I know two people who have changed their name here in Sweden from foreign names to Nordic ones.

One woman, a Finn, had a Turkish last name because she changed it when she married. After working with her for many years she changed her name when her son changed his name. He decided to use his mother's maiden name which was clearly Finnish. He said it made it easier to not to have to explain to everyone in Finland why he had a Turkish last name. He also hoped it would make it easier to get a job in Finland.

His mother, the one I knew, simply followed suit wanting to bear the same name as her son. She just announced at work one day that she had changed her name because her son had done so and no one ever made any comment about it. She handed me the papers from PRV (the patent office in Sweden takes care of name changes, or at least they used to) and that was that.

I also worked for a long time with a guy who had an Arabic, but not unusual, name. Easy to spell and pronounce. Born and raised in Sweden, he decided to change his name to a more Scandinavian name for reasons he never explained and no one ever asked about. He just announced he was changing it and everyone just said OK. I don't recall a single comment about it and even though we would forget sometimes, he was consistent in reminding us and in really no time at all he was the new name.

It is pretty common in Scandinavia for people to change their names and my experience is that no one cares why you do it and if you announce your name is Fred people will just start calling you Fred.
posted by three blind mice at 6:14 AM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Sorry to be a stickler for protocol here, but please note that OP is asking specifically for experiences, not opinions.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 6:28 AM on January 8, 2014

Hello! I also have a very weird first name that is specific to a small Eastern European country. I go by a nickname that is loosely based on my middle name. It's fine. Do it! Your friends will get over it.
posted by joan_holloway at 6:32 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: My experience is very very limited and tiny. I was briefly married and the last name was very long and very ethnic. And apparently very difficult to pronounce (I never had trouble with it myself, but many others did).

My experience was that at the DMV, the person behind the counter made fun of my very ethnic married name, even though I was not using it. It just popped up on the computer screen and he grilled me about it - how do you pronounce it? what is the origin? why wasn't I using it? how do you pronounce it again? And then he called over a half dozen people from the office to come gawk at my totally private married name. My maiden name was and always has been my public name. I did not like talking about my marriage, for a variety of reasons.

The DMV experience really shed a lot of light for me on issues surrounding calling people what they want to be called.

So I say, choose your new name, and wear it proudly. If your old name stresses you out even half of what that one experience did for me, I would say go for it. And it sounds like the stress for you is way more than it was for me. For me, I knew the experience was temporary, and that guy was an anomaly in my life. I have a very boring American last name, and a relatively uncommon but totally "white lady" French first name. It is an enormous privilege to have these things and to never have to face scrutiny over "where I come from." The closest I get is "Oh, are your parents French?" Standing in front of the DMV guy, getting interrogated and laughed at about my name was just incredibly uncomfortable.
posted by bilabial at 6:42 AM on January 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

In general I feel that it might weird people out that I go from an ethnic to a non-ethnic name.

At least in the US, this is incredibly common, especially with Indians and East Asians, these days. You don't even really need to formally change your name. Just pick a nickname that's similar enough and use it for introductions.

A typical american conversation will go like this: "And this is uh.. Raha.. uh.. Rahajan... uh.." "Just 'Ronnie' is fine". And that's the end of it.
posted by empath at 6:42 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do know someone who changed both their first and last names, dropping ethnic names in the process. (Their old first name exists in the US outside their ethnic group, but is uncommon. For scale, I've never met anyone with their old name and one person with a variation.) I met them post-name change, though. I do know their motivation was different from yours, but I don't know if they intentionally avoided overtly ethnic names. (Their new name is unusual, but it doesn't have blinking neon lights saying 'I am [ethnic group]'.*)

My surname prompts a lot of the same crap your first name does (but I suspect your crap has a greater political dimension than mine). I do know that was part of the reason my mother reverted to her maiden name when my parents got divorced (the bother of changing your name was less than the bother of having to endlessly spell and explain a name that you ended up with by a twist of fate, plus the whole 'I wouldn't have changed it had I not been married' thing). I've never really come up with a good way of dealing with it. "Are you Russian?" gets met with a "No." But sometimes you can tell from their question that people really want to categorise me based on my name, but they also aren't interested in hearing the answer because it's not a tidy one. So sometimes I misread the situation and launch into an actual explanation (and their eyes glaze over and hopefully they feel bad for asking) and sometimes say "I don't know." The ones trying to be subtle ask where I'm from and usually don't press when I say Chicago to avoid the embarrassment of giving away their actual objective (that they stop is totally white privilege in action). Of course, if they do press, it'll likely be about where I was born, which was also Chicago, at which point, it'll be getting really quite awkward if they keep going but that doesn't work for you.

I feel quite strongly that you ought not to feel you should change your name because people are stupid about it and I think that's what's stopped me from ever seriously entertaining taking my mother's surname. The thought has crossed my mind, but I wouldn't do it. The Guardian once ran an article quoting someone with my first name plus my mother's surname and I thought "Hey, that guy has my name!" and then realised that no, he didn't. (Also, thinking about it now, I think my name sounds a bit stupid with my mother's surname.) That doesn't really help you, though.

If you do decide to go for it, remember that your friends aren't entitled to tell you how you're making the wrong decision because your name is 'special' any more than people are entitled to ask you for your entire life history based on your name. You're entitled to be called what you want to be called. One half-way step would be to try and create a plausibly Scandinavian nickname for your current name that could also be a nickname for some Scandinavian name (the one you have in mind now or not--it depends how many letters you'd be reshuffling), switch to the nickname and either officially change what it's a nickname for later on or not. (Of course, if there were an obvious nickname, I'm guessing you would have thought of it by now, so perhaps that's an empty suggestion.)

*I wouldn't be surprised if the average American couldn't fill in the right ethnic group, though.
posted by hoyland at 6:46 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all your comments and keep posting more! It's helping me a lot.

I just want to point out that going by a nickname is not an option for me. I'm now entering academia as a Ph.D. student and I need to get my name out there on articles and at conferences. Having two names will just confuse things, I think. Sorry for not being clear about this in my question.
posted by petrovski at 6:52 AM on January 8, 2014

No, it absolutely is possible for you! I work with many people (mongolians, nepali, tibetans, khazaks, uyghur, etc) from Central and Himalayan Asia, many of whom have very (to americans) confusingly spelled and pronounced names. Many of them have one name on their business card and another (casual, americanized) nickname for introdutions.

This seems more like a confidence/anxiety issue, really, which I totally get because I fucking hate spelling my ethnic eastern european last name over and over and over again - it's stressful and embarrassing and makes me grit my teeth every time. Only people of my late father's nationality know how to pronounce it correctly, so I stopped using the correct pronunciation of it at least 20 years ago. I don't know what to suggest on this issue for you because it's still low-level vexing for me. I kind of just grew out of the embarrassed anxiety surrounding it.
posted by elizardbits at 7:04 AM on January 8, 2014

I and most of my family have used Anglicized versions of our birth names from the start. Some of us used our birth names semi-professionally (like on published papers and PhD theses) and for others out birth name might as well be a secret outside of our family and ethnic community.

I would go for the related-nickname approach. It also helps as a "filter" for callers and emailers-- anyone who uses your birth name is obviously someone who doesn't know you personally.
posted by deanc at 7:08 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: You have to be consistent about using your western name all of the time for the name change to work.

My Chinese colleagues would select western names that were completely unlike their Chinese names quite often. If they used the western name with both Chinese and western colleagues, the transition went well. If their email name and address gave only the western name, things went well.

It was when the email address was in the Chinese name, the email signature gave both the Chinese and western names, and the person was hesitant in which name he/she would like to use when asked by a westerner that it was a problem. Chinese colleagues would know the person only by their Chinese name, so when trying to refer to the person by the western name people would get confused. In that case the western name would not stick.

So, if you go with a western name that is not obviously a shortened form of your native name, go all-in. Change your email address, change your login, change everything. This will reduce confusion among colleagues that know you today by your existing name and may never learn your western name otherwise.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:36 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, I have mixed feelings, but it's personal baggage--part of my family came to the US from Mexico in the late 40s or early 50s and probably went all out with the integration thing, so the Mexican side of my family was all Joe and Charlie and whatever, and it felt like I lost something, there, coming from a family that had done that. But on the other hand, this made me think about women who take their husband's last names but continue to work professionally under their maiden names. And thinking about that--I don't think there's anything wrong with adopting another name for professional purposes, so long as you're comfortable with it. But I wouldn't give it up entirely--it's still who you were for these first 27 years of your life, you know?
posted by Sequence at 7:49 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: My maiden name was very ethnic and my married name is completely generic. It concerned me while I was thinking about changing my name when I got married; once I did it, it hasn't been an issue at all. I use my maiden name as a middle name sometimes, but I don't have to do it, and it's MUCH easier to introduce myself on the phone this way! And that stupid little routine they do at Safeway where they read your name off the receipt and wish you a good evening -- SO much less painful now. And I'm no less ethnic than I was.

The actress/writer Mindy Kaling writes lovingly and proudly about her parents, whose name is Chokalingam. Changing your name doesn't need to come from a place of embarrassment or wanting to jettison ethnicity. Convenience is fine too.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:53 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't personally have experience, but I've lost count of how many Jewish friends and acquaintances have anglicised names because their Eastern European grandfathers and great-grandfathers wished to assimilate more easily. They didn't stop being Jewish, of course.

If you're looking for experiences of this, albeit not necessarily recent experiences, the Jewish community is a good place to go looking.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:01 AM on January 8, 2014

I think that it's perfectly acceptable to introduce yourself as "My name is X but please call me [nickname].

For whatever it's worth, I didn't even know my own grandfather's legal birth name until I was a teenager! His family when immigrating to the US, Americanized their last name but still gave him an ethnic name. He used his nickname personally and professionally, as many people in my family in similar situations did.

At least in the US, this practice is extremely common.
posted by inertia at 8:04 AM on January 8, 2014

Ditto for many of my Chinese colleagues. It's a choice for those I know---about half choose a new name when emigrating. There doesn't seem to be any stigma attached either way in the community, though that can be hard to tell from outside. Most who switch seem to be at least happy with their choice. It certainly does make adapting to a new culture simpler, practically.

Entering a graduate program is a good time to do this. It will be harder to change you name when you are known by your original name beyond your friends and family.
posted by bonehead at 8:06 AM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

My brother is named for our grandfather, which is a kind of rare and archaic name even in our birth country. And it's almost unpronounceable for English speakers.

For example's sake, let's say it's something like Risplendente (it's not; that's not even a name where I'm from, but bear with me).

When we were kids, someone said, "What? Ris... Ris... Did you say Reece?" when my brother was introducing himself. There was much back and forth and explaining of the name. The conclusion? "I'll just call you Reece."

It stuck. And it was a lot easier to say, 'yeah' then to explain what his name was and how to spell it, and where it was from, and what it means over and over.

He now goes by the shortened 'sound' of his real name-- which is a name here, and everyone calls him that-- at work, at home, even our nephews use it, and all our European relatives call him by the English name now too. He uses it everywhere, and he introduces himself with his nickname.

But legally, he still uses his birth name. It's still on all his documents and such. Accounts. Bills. Anything important. In those cases, he just assumes no one knows what he means, so he automatically spells it out right after saying it.

He never legally changed it, partly because it's a bit of a pain to legally change your name, as far as birth certificates go and drivers licenses and other legal documents and such. Also, it was our grandfather's name, and it's part of our heritage, and I guess that makes him not want to actually change it. It's also really unique-- it's not that common where it's from, either. It's annoying to have a name no one gets, but I think that for him, the benefits of keeping the name (especially for any kids he might have) outweigh the drawbacks of having a weird name.
posted by Dimes at 8:10 AM on January 8, 2014

Many of my Chinese students use a Western first name as their nickname. It's a little more common among the women. Also I've known Indian and Thai people who've shortened their very long first names down to a syllable or two, and some regret being unable to do the same with their last names.
posted by Rash at 8:11 AM on January 8, 2014

It's YOUR name. Change it if you want to change it. What other people think does not matter.

My perspective: I have changed my first name a couple of times and have always been immune to what other people think. People were mostly irritated that they'd have to remember to call me something else. Not my problem.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 8:21 AM on January 8, 2014

I think that it's perfectly acceptable to introduce yourself as "My name is X but please call me [nickname].

This likely won't work, as you'll still have people asking you how to spell X, where the name X comes from, etc.

If you opt for this route, I suggest instead that you introduce yourself as Nickname and only give name X to those who need it (i.e., employers, the government, etc.). If you interview for a job, do the whole thing with your nickname, including your resume. I do this all the time. Then when I fill out paperwork "Oh, by the way, my legal first name is Y and I'm sure you can see, ha ha, why I use nickname Z!" My name is such that yes, they can see...
posted by AllieTessKipp at 8:24 AM on January 8, 2014

Yes, I changed my full legal name by adding a vowel and removing two consonants. This simplified the pronunciation a bit as well. I did it in the middle of my university days and everything was fine. Friends had already been calling me by my first name so I didn't make any big announcement. Rather, I just started using the new name consistently and changed things still in the old name. If you saw my two names together, it would be clear that I was just simplifying my name and not that I was adopting a new identity or hiding from my past. Anyway, the upshot is that I went from 0% chance that someone could spell or pronounce my name to about 80-90% chance they will get it right on the first try. That was worth it to me.

I could be mistaken, but I thought palindrome was "racecar" -- same backwards and forwards. So for instance, Anna would still be Anna and Otto would still be Otto. I am not sure how you are changing your first name, but if it has traction with your friends and colleagues, then again it just seems like a business decision and not a radical change in identity.

Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 8:24 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: I just want to point out that going by a nickname is not an option for me. I'm now entering academia as a Ph.D. student and I need to get my name out there on articles and at conferences. Having two names will just confuse things, I think. Sorry for not being clear about this in my question.

I'm a PhD student on my way out of academia (which may inform my perspective a bit) and mostly go by my middle name, but publish as 'Firstname M.I. Lastname', which is what's on my website and so forth. This is much less of an issue that you'd think, though it's probably not the preferred solution. (There's a guy in my subfield who publishes as 'F.I. Middlename Lastname' and goes by his middle name.)

There are a fair few people who go by nicknames (that are often obvious diminutives in language X, but not in English) and publish under their full names. You're not actually obliged to publish under your legal name--my best friend publishes under the name she uses (which is an uncommon diminutive of her legal name). I think it's a minor headache when you're doing something like travel reimbursement and you're registered for the conference under one name and need a check in another, but it's not a big deal.
posted by hoyland at 8:27 AM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had a close coworker who used his Chinese first name for a year and then asked to be called by an English first name that had nothing in common with his Chinese one.

I won't lie; it was really tough to remember, especially since we had all worked really hard in the first few weeks we knew him to learn to pronounce his Chinese name (maybe it wasn't perfect, but to our American ears it sounded exactly the same as when he said it). We're a university with many international students, faculty, and staff, and a large Chinese community, and he wasn't the only person in the department with a Chinese name, so we never completely understood his reasons.

But, we didn't need to. It was his decision, and we abided by it, no questions asked. We messed up, or course. We messed up remembering his new name a lot more than we ever messed up learning his original name, but we eventually got there.

Oddly enough, he got a better job offer and left shortly after I started thinking of him as [Englishname]. I'm not 100% sure, but I had the impression the job was back in China.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:53 AM on January 8, 2014

I know lots and lots of people with ethnic names and English names -- just about every person of Chinese descent that I meet in Canada has both a Chinese name and an English name. Sometimes those names are related, I know a Juan whose English name is Joanne, but mostly they're things like Sook-lin having the English name Carole. Nobody thinks this is at all odd.

Speaking as someone who tried to do a sort of name transition -- from the Jacqui of my childhood, to using my full name, Jacquilynne, as an adult -- it's very, very difficult to train people who already know you by one name to use another name. But if you're absolutely consistent about it, and if the new name is easier rather than harder, you can be successful at it.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:56 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: I think it's a minor headache when you're doing something like travel reimbursement and you're registered for the conference under one name and need a check in another, but it's not a big deal.

If you need to travel abroad to meetings, this can take a significant amount of explaining. Best to have all of your travel documents in a single name. This means even "unofficial" stuff like hotel reservations and the name on your conference publication/talk. It's not impossible to use two different names for this, but you'll have to answer a lot of questions at border security, and this might cause delays.

When travelling, my Chinese colleagues either do everything in their birth name or formally change to their chosen English name. Some documentation in one name and some in another can cause problems and long delays. US agents have asked to see the conference slides/papers of my colleagues at border control.

You're not actually obliged to publish under your legal name

Journals publish under whatever name you give them. They don't care at all. It's only a pain for indexing services, but most of them have ways to "unify" authors now. This can matter a little for things like citation counts, but it's not a huge deal and easily sorted out, in my experience.
posted by bonehead at 9:00 AM on January 8, 2014

A friend of mine has an ethnic firstname and lastname, and western middle name. He had a lot of trouble finding a job after he graduated, so at some point he just started using his western middle name as his first name. He got a job pretty quickly after that, and now uses it as his first name everywhere. He also emigrated to another country where he is a racial minority, and I gather the western first name has helped immensely. I know him by his old first name, so it sounds odd to hear people call him by his middle name, but I've got used to it and its fine.
posted by Joh at 9:26 AM on January 8, 2014

Most of the people I know who have changed their first names have done so towards a name or pronunciation *more* indicative of their background, but I have been in universities in the US for a long time so that might be related. Generally I've stumbled a bit but figure it out after the first few times addressing them.

As far as academic name changes go, keep in mind that anyone considering hiring you will always have a CV that lists your publications and etc. anyhow, so no matter what name you choose, the people who really matter will have a full list of what's yours. (A friend of mine who changed her name when getting married was the one to present this perspective; that having been said, I won't be changing mine if/when I get married).
posted by nat at 12:19 PM on January 8, 2014

My dad has a crazy long Ukrainian first name beginning with E. When he was in the workforce, he would go by his middle name (John) and put E. John LastName on business cards.
posted by medeine at 1:47 PM on January 8, 2014

I know a guy who changed his last name from Johnson to McShane, because apparently his ancestors had anglicized their Irish name. Honestly, I thought it was pretty bizarre that he did it, but a lot of people cheered him and encouraged him. I also went to high school with an Indian kid with a long, hard-to-read/pronounce ethnic name that he clearly hated. He went by Gavin instead. I'm not sure if he legally changed his name, but he still goes by Gavin to this day, more than a decade later.

If you have by already been going by this other name for some time, I don't see why not make it official, but it sounds like you still go by your birth name. In your shoes, I'd start introducing myself as that name I want. I know plenty of people who go by nicknames that aren't their names. Like, for some reason "Jack" is a nickname for men named Jonathan. I know a girl who insists on going by "Ducky," which I think is ridiculous, but whatever. Also, my family is from Italy and my Uncle Giuseppe went by Joseph in the U.S. Uncle Francesco went by Frank, and so on. Not weird at all to use two names. I think people will call you what you tell them you call you and I would start by going as your chosen name as a nickname and see how it feels. Start introducing yourself as it. When you get coffee, give them that name. Start just using that name when you can.

For what it's worth, I have a typical American name and people routine spell it completely, ridiculously wrong. I guess they spell it the way it sounds, not the way it's supposed to be spelled. Normally I just say "OK" when they suggest an incorrect spelling. It's something I've come to accept. We all have our little name woes.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:18 PM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: I have first and last Eastern European names. More than once, I've had to disconfirm expectations when people encountered me on paper before meeting me -- most often, in interview situations in the UK, albeit outside of academia. E.g., "You speak English so well!" (My resume listed an entirely North American education, jobs in English-language communications, and Canadian citizenship.) One person said, "I wasn't sure what you'd be like, I was expecting someone from Poland". I mean I guess they weren't bothered enough by my possibly being Polish (which I'm not) to avoid calling me in, but I have to tell you, they seemed relieved when they found I wasn't. And I wonder how many people simply passed on that resume. (That said, I was employed the whole time I was there, in jobs appropriately suited to my level of education and experience.)

It's tiresome, I agree, and I do think Eastern Europeans (and their names) encounter prejudice, in Western Europe especially, these days. I don't think it's quite the same in North America.

I've toyed with anglicizing my first name, which is a matter of swapping one letter for another. Doesn't hang or sound right (all the vowels wind up getting flattened, widened, it just sounds wrong), and the associations carried by the Anglo version don't really click with how I see myself.

But if you like the sound and vibe and associations of this new name, and you feel like you can wear it, go for it!
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:55 PM on January 8, 2014

Experience as an auditor, not a named person: As an immigration lawyer (in Canada, so YMMV), I deal with a lot of people with non-Western names. What seems to be common, cross-cultural practice is (1) if a short form familiar to Westerners/English speakers can be derived from a "foreign" name, use that; (2) alternatively, if there's a short form or nickname-version that is not "English" but it easy to spell/pronounce, go with that. This seems to work for my colleagues/clients/clients' families/interpreters/etc.
posted by sarahkeebs at 9:51 PM on January 11, 2014

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