Naming with Respect

In the course of a conversation recently, I told someone that I’d changed my name when I got married, a person who has only ever known me as Jamie Waters. I was totally taken aback by their reaction. I didn’t write down what he said (because it would have been rude), but here is the gist:

I thought you were feminist! But you want your identity to be your spouse? Don’t you care about the professional life you built up? Do you want to be seen as subservient? (etc.)

I replied with the usual litany: yeah, I get to make my own decisions, and here are the reasons I did it (not that I owe you an explanation), and here is why you should respect that and also respect that I prefer Ms. to Mrs. and preferably never being referred to as Mrs. [Husband Name] because, wow that’s rude [note: some people do prefer this, respect them!].

It was a fairly civil conversation, but it was also characteristic of a few interactions I’ve had with folks over the past few years, folks who feel they need to have an opinion on my choices. And women who don’t change their name are subject to the same kind of critique: “Why didn’t you change your name? Don’t you want your children to share your name? Are you not fully committed to your relationship?” (etc. etc. etc.)

There are always handwringing articles floating around the interwebs posing the question “Why [should or shouldn’t] you change your name to your husband’s?” or “Why [are or aren’t] women changing their name?” or “Here is a very short list of valid reasons to change [or not to change] your name.”

People who think they’re progressively feminist will have an opinion (You should never change your name, that’s playing into a system of oppressive ownership!) and people who are social conservatives will have an opinion (Obviously you should change your name, it’s better for the children!). They’re ironically on the same side of the debate: they’re both trying to control how women make decisions with their lives.

Feminism is the belief that we should all be equally able to make our own decisions about our identities and our paths in life, and that means respecting your own ability to make decisions and respecting the decisions others make. Name choices are part of that. Respect that someone has made their choices, and don’t question their motives or make assumptions about their life.

But then there is another problem: calling someone by the incorrect name. This has happened to me on occasion, and, if it’s an accident, I’ll just gently correct them and move on. But sometimes it’s on purpose.

One person tried to add me on LinkedIn the other day with a custom message that started with: “Ms. Olson.” He then proceeded to comment on my experiences in a job I had for summers in high school and college. This built on the feeling that this person wanted to treat me like a child—like the person I was when I was 18.

My last name is listed as Waters on LinkedIn and most everywhere else on the internet. I don’t know why he assumed I’d want to be called “Ms. Olson” instead of “Ms. Waters”, but perhaps he thought that it made him look more progressive. But no, it made him look disrespectful.

The only interpretation I could make was to presume this person was just being condescending and disrespectful of my clear choice. (LinkedIn does allow you to customize who can see former names, which I find to be useful, and I’ve since made my former name visible to only people in my network to make sure it doesn’t happen again)

Another time I was misnamed was when I was calling out someone for something vaguely misogynistic, and he then decided he would refer to me as Ms. Olson because, of course, if I cared about misogyny in one context I couldn’t possibly want to have the same last name as my spouse.

He made an assumption that my desire to be treated equally meant that my choice to change my name was invalid, and ignored my personal and professional identity. And let me tell you, it is never appropriate to question or invalidate someone’s identity as an argumentative tactic.

The only time this has been appropriate (and actually quite funny) was when my brother actually made this mistake a little while ago. He and my parents are the only people who are allowed to forget: they’ve known me many years longer with the same last name as them, and they are the people most likely to just think of me just by first name.

He had arrived to an event with a bunch of my friends, and told me, “yeah, I just told people I was Jamie Olson’s brother! They looked a little confused, but here I am!” and I said… “LOL that would have worked if I was an Olson!” … “Wait, what? OHHHHHH that makes a lot more sense…” He was truly stunned; he had just completely forgotten.

In all, it is just rude to have an opinion on someone’s name change or to ignore their preferred names. People change their name for a variety of reasons: a nickname they’ve outgrown, a preference for a middle name or a first name, a desire to leave behind a past, a way to honor a part of your identity, a new family status, a transition in gender. These, and any other reason, are all perfect motivations to change a name.

What’s more, respecting their choice and using accurate naming is incredibly validating. Calling something by the most accurate name helps confirm understanding, process thoughts and emotions, and communicate ideas.

In various counseling trainings I’ve done, we learn that naming an emotion accurately can validate someone’s feelings and help them figure out ways of processing it. In communication more generally, using the most appropriate word—in meaning, in complexity, in context—helps make you more easily understood. Similarly, calling someone by their preferred name and pronouns (given or chosen) validates and confirms their identity and communicates more effectively.

Calling someone by any other name puts you at odds with them, and they’ll have to correct you or be faced with the fact that you’ve refused to accept their identity. Yet people often feel the need to disagree with, comment on, or otherwise disregard name preferences. Whether that’s using a nickname someone doesn’t like (Liz instead of Elizabeth, or Alex instead of Xander, for example), referring to a woman by her husband’s last name if she doesn’t share it, or calling someone by any former name when you know they’ve changed it.

Bad responses to learning someone’s name come in different levels, and happen regularly to people who have changed their name (or even just have an unusual name):

  • Asking why that is their name. [sometimes this can be appropriate if it comes from genuine curiosity]
  • Asking them to defend their choice (“Why would you do that?”)
  • Commenting on their name with criticism (“But x name is so much prettier!” “Isn’t that disrespectful to your heritage?”)
  • Trying to change the name they told you (“I’ll just shorten it to Liz instead”)
  • Assuming they have values based on their name (“you changed your name, you must want kids!”)
  • Questioning their values based on their name (“But I thought you were [insert ideology here, feminist, Christian, children oriented]!”)
  • Ignoring them and continuing to use a name other than their preference.
  • Institutionalization of ignoring preferred names or gender, making it difficult to address someone correctly. (e.g. some universities make it difficult to change your name while in school, some states refuse to accept new gender pronouns)

The best thing to do when you learn someone’s name or that someone has changed their name: respect what they tell you and call them by their name. If another person calls a friend by the wrong name, back up your friend and/or correct the error.

And finally, here’s a good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t say it to someone you just met whose given and preferred name is “George Smith”, don’t say it to someone else.

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