Names Across Cultures (First in a Series of Video Interviews with Authors!)

Name ChangesThere are many reasons people change their names: some people have a stage name, pen name, nickname, religious name, or an earned title or name. All too frequently, however, a name is involuntarily changed when someone immigrates, or when a teacher or teammates have trouble pronouncing the person’s birth name.

Many of us work with individuals who have been “renamed” by other colleagues, or who have changed their names to make them more palatable and pronounceable in a new location. Other times people adopt a different name due to a change in circumstance, profession, or age. For example, as a kid growing up in a small town, my father was called “Charlie:’ however, as a middle-aged adult living in a different town, he became known as “Chuck.”

Many people’s names have special meaning or significance. An interesting way to learn about a new acquaintance can be to ask the meaning and origin of the person’s name. And, if we wish to build trust with our friends and colleagues, in addition to understanding the meaning of their names, we can learn to pronounce their names correctly. You may recall that in January 2012 we shared a link for a handy-dandy little software that allows YOU to record the pronunciation of your name, and add it to your email signature, website, LinkedIn account, etc. What a great way for those unfamiliar with your name to hear it prior to meeting you!

Perhaps you, like me, are known by several different names bestowed on us by friends and colleagues. Dianne is the name given to me by my parents at birth, while my name in Japan is Dai-an (大安 or “great peace”, also a very auspicious day of the month). My Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues call me Diana María, and close friends and family call me Di. In my case, I’d rather be known as “Diana” or “Dai-an” than have my birth name “Dianne” mispronounced.

In many cultures, such as Mexico where I live, it is a sign of cariño or affection to bestow a nickname on others (click here for a list of some unusual terms of endearment in various languages). However, many people worldwide love their birth names, believe they are imbued with power, and would honestly prefer we not change their names for them.

Yet some people do want to change their name for various reasons, and have done so. Here’s a special little drag-and-drop game for you, to see if you can match some famous people’s birth names with the names they are more commonly known by now.

I recently spoke with Dr. Emmanuel Ngomsi, a diversity consultant originally from Cameroon, about the topic of naming. Emmanuel has a wealth of experience, is very passionate, and a consummate storyteller, as you’ll see in the interview below.

Do you have a story related to naming that you’d be kind enough to share with us? Have you changed your name, or has it been changed for you? How do you feel about that? Do you have any advice for others about names and naming?

See Part 2 of this interview.

13 thoughts on “Names Across Cultures (First in a Series of Video Interviews with Authors!)

  1. Many of us work with individuals who have been “renamed” by other colleagues, or who have changed their names to make them more palatable and pronounceable in a new location.Many people’s names have special meaning or significance. An interesting way to learn about a new acquaintance can be to ask the meaning and origin of the person’s name. Every nation has a trend of calling up by some peculiar name which helps a lot for better communication and understanding.


    • Thank you for sharing your story, Christian. The outpouring of emotion, pain and passion around this post on our social media networks has been amazing. I hope to summarize them soon, though quite a few were shared confidentially. Please, pass on and around any of these posts that you find helpful. That’s why they are there. We very much enjoy your blog, as you know. I don’t know where you get the productivity, but they are consistently insightful!


  2. Reblogged this on Southeast Schnitzel and commented:
    Isn’t it weird how we instantaneously and subconsciously group people according to their names? I find this especially true for names from languages and cultures I have very little knowledge of. If you can’t pronounce the name, if you can’t say it out loud (or in your head), there can be a perceived cultural distance between the person of that name and yourself. Hard as we may try to NOT think or behave like that, unfortunately it does happen. Taking into account that our names are part of our identity, it should be our goal to tune in and listen closely to the way people pronounce their names, to hear how they say it and repeat it until it feels right to them. I’m not saying that this is easy – heck, I know how hard it is for most Americans to say my name ( – but if people “get” names across cultures they often “get” the people, too.


  3. I find it entertaining that when I say my name “Vanessa” as I pronounce it in a California-English, rarely is it understood in Spanish speaking countries. I usually have to repeat myself, and clarify “Banessa” and then without fail they will say, “ah ok, BANESA”. When I was in Thailand I was “Waaanesa” and in Morocco, they said “V” doesnt exist, so we will give you “F” and thus I became Fanessa. I think its fun, I’m waiting for what new letter will replace “V” which seems to be a less common letter/sound around the world.

    Thanks for sharing this post. I always liked the way Spanish speakers say “Melinda” que linda 🙂


    • Yes, Vanessa/Banesa/Fanessa, your response to your various names sounds very similar to mine: joy-filled. It would be interesting to do research on how/why this is. I suspect when our move is our choice, and when we can see that others are trying their best to pronounce our name, a change in its proununciation is acceptable? A complete change, without someone’s permission, would seem to be another matter. It’s a fascinating topic with loads of emotional attachment, as can be seen by the huge amount of social media comments on this post. Thanks for joining in!


  4. Pingback: HUGE Response to Our Post on Names Across Cultures | Cultural Detective Blog

  5. Thank you for sharing your story Dianne. I can relate on so many levels. I wrote my story a year ago if you’d like read it: I’ve also noticed that younger Japanese children can never say my name right either. I suppose it has to do with the pronunciation of “ri” or in the English sense “li” that they don’t learn until later on. (come to think of it, I wouldn’t know what word starts with “ri” that children use at that age. Perhaps “risu” (squirrel?) or “ringo” (apple)) They always called me “jisa” instead. or, sometimes, it’s easier to just say “li-tan” (nickname).


    • 梨沙さん、どうも、ありがとう!Thank you for sharing your story with us also, Risa/Lisa/Li-tan! This blended culture space in which we live is indeed interesting! Thank you for joining us here! You look to be a very interesting lady, and I trust we will be able to meet some day!


  6. Pingback: Terrific Video Clip on “Funny” Names Across Cultures | Cultural Detective Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s