Names and what they tell us
Do names matter or are they just a reflection of the times and the iconic figures we see on media, in cinema, television and on the cricket pitch?
When I was studying at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, or IIM-C, (1977-79), an enterprising student did a survey of all the participants in the MBA programme who were in the Joka campus. There were around 200 of us; 18 were women.
One interesting piece of trivia emerged from that survey. It was found that there were 78 students who were Tamil Brahmins; and that too Iyers (Iyengars not included).
I was reminded of this trivia as I saw students of the Class of 2017 walk up onto stage to receive their postgraduate programme (PGP) diplomas from the chairman of the board of governors of IIM-C. Thanks to technology, as students walked up onto the stage one by one, their photographs flashed on the big LED screen, giving the audience a larger-than-life passport picture of each one of them and their names. Sitting on stage, watching the process start, I got my fellow governor and a faculty nominee on the board to play an interesting game. I quickly told him about the “Iyer” phenomenon of the late 1970s and asked him which in his opinion would be the most popular name among the IIM-C PGP students. Not only were we curious to study the fate of the Iyer clan, but also see if there were any patterns that emerged in the names of students at IIM-C.
Our research stretched right through the convocation. At the end we realized that most of our assumptions had been overturned.
For one, there weren’t as many typical Tam Brahm names. I remember during my time at IIM-C there were many Srinivasans, to the extent that they had to be given newer names: CheenuB, VSrini, RSrini, etc. I was a bit disappointed to see the disappearance of the typical Tam Brahm surnames like Narayanan, Vaidyanathan, Srinivasan, Subramanian, Krishnaswamy, etc. If they were there, they did not catch our attention.
Coming to first names, there was a time when every guy born in the country was called Ravi, Vijay, Rajiv or Rahul. How did these names feature in the Class of 2017? Not well at all. Yes there were a couple, but not too many.
To our surprise, the name that popped up the most was Ankit (and Ankita), together there were eight students with that name/s.
For the first time in IIM-C history, the Gold Medal winners of both the two-year PGP programme and the one-year PGP for Executives programme were women. The participation of women which had stagnated in the low double-digits—11-12%—has started climbing up at IIMs. The latest batch at IIM-C has 30% women, probably the highest among the top IIMs.
Coming back to names, do they matter or are they just a reflection of the times and the iconic figures we see on media, in cinema, television and on the cricket pitch?
Global research points to some interesting phenomena as reported in The Independent. In a New York University study it was found that if you have a name that is easy to pronounce, people will favour you more. As one of the psychologists explained, when we can process a piece of information more easily, comprehend it more easily, we also tend to like it more. This probably explains why Indian (and Chinese/Japanese /Korean) adopt a more familiar name when they cross the Atlantic (or Pacific).
Research in the US has also pointed out that if you have a black-sounding name like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones, your chances of getting a callback from a recruiter is lower by 50%.
An age-old belief in the US is that a name with a middle name carries more heft; a middle initial makes you sound smarter and more competent. Harry S. Truman, 33rd president of the US, had a middle name which was just an initial “S”. And he went on to become president.
In the book Invisible Influence, Jonah Berger reports how US social security administration tracks the names given to babies. And they discovered that in the years 2006 to 2010 there was a 10% increase in the number of babies being given names that start with the letter “K”; Berger points to the storm Katrina that ravaged the south of the US for the rise in the “K” names.
Our own television producers had a “K” obsession, not in any way related to the storm; it was probably dictated by a favourite astrologer, and not the weather god.
The Bard had said “what’s in a name”? I realized that there is a lot in a name. Every name tells a story that is a little different from the previous one. Each of the eight Ankits are sure to agree. Or maybe not.
Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is a brand strategist, author and founder of Brand-Building.com, an independent brand advisory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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