Nominative undeterminism?

I’ve had this post in my drafts for years, and I’ve vacillated about the merits of posting it. Interest in topics like diversity in editing and publishing seems to be growing, though, so I figured I’d throw this one out there, if for no other reason than to get it out of my drafts folder. Maybe it will spur some interesting discussion.

“I’m changin’ my name to George,” fellow editor Grace Yaginuma emailed me in 2012, when we were both relatively new to freelancing after leaving our respective in-house jobs. She linked to a blog post about how much more easily a freelance copywriter landed work when she went by “James Chartrand.”

“You know,” I wrote back, “I’ve never considered my gender to be a problem in our line of work—there are just so many women doing what we do—but I do often wonder if the ‘Cheung’ and ‘Yaginuma’ lead to assumptions that we don’t speak English.”

When I started my business, I hadn’t yet built up an archive of blog posts that (I hope, anyway) give me professional credibility. I had a strong network within Canadian book publishing, but, outside of that industry—which is brilliant and fulfilling but notoriously low paying—all anyone had to go on when I looked for work was my name. What kind of first impression does it give?

Study after study has shown that job applicants with “foreign-sounding” names have a harder time landing interviews. Is the problem compounded when the job demands expertise in language?

It’d be wonderful if people took the time to look into their editors’ qualifications before deciding whom to hire, but we know that doesn’t always happen. I’ve undoubtedly missed out on the odd contract because a prospective client saw my Chinese name and moved on to other editors, but I tend to take a sour-grapes approach to these cases, convincing myself that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to work with them anyway. I think this attitude, delusional or not, has served me relatively well.

To be perfectly clear: I have never once felt overtly discriminated against as an editor because of my name or ethnicity, and I’m lucky to be one of a group of bright, industrious, and conscientious colleagues who don’t hesitate to recommend one another for work. That said, I wonder sometimes if I would have tried as hard to find ways to show that I know what I’m talking about if I hadn’t felt that my name gave me a bit of a disadvantage.

I’m likely better off for it, but the initial impostor syndrome, some of it definitely name induced, was something I had to work through. When I started freelancing, I was acutely aware that anything I wrote—whether an email or an invoice or a blog post or a tweet—was a work sample, and I attacked these writing tasks with probably unnecessary fastidiousness. Only in the past couple of years, knowing that the people who matter to me will take me and my work seriously, have I let myself relax somewhat and embrace nonstandard constructions more playfully in my own writing.

Has your name affected your work? I’d be keen to hear others’ stories.

12 thoughts on “Nominative undeterminism?”

  1. This is a great post, Iva. I’m glad you published it. I don’t have anything to add, my name being thoroughly Anglo, but it’s great that you’ve opened the discussion. I also will be interested to learn about others’ experiences.

  2. Thanks for starting the conversation, Iva. I think it’s a really good question, and I’m sure you’re right that you have to work harder to be taken seriously. I’m sorry that’s the case. I too look forward to hearing what others might have to say. I walk around the world with most of the obvious privileges except for gender. And I’m glad you were brave enough to ask about this.

    1. Haha! Thanks for reading, Marie, but this post took no bravery on my part. I just didn’t want to sound whingey. I haven’t suffered at all, really.

  3. I’ve always wondered whether my unusual name would mean I’d be less likely to be called for an interview or approached about a job. A potential client once contacted one of my current clients for names of editors. My name was put forward as “the best choice,” but the potential client contacted another editor first; her name is Anglo Saxon and easy to pronounce—mine, not so much. And I was the second choice. But whether our names were the source of the switcheroo I’ll never know. But I do find that academia seems much more accepting of foreign-sounding names.

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Mariko! I’m happy (and not surprised) to hear about academia’s relative tolerance to diversity.

  4. I have had people online assume that English is my second language. My husband is Chinese, and I am white. I don’t know that I’ve missed any opportunities, but if I did, I would take the sour-grapes approach as well. Who wants to work with people like that? Great post!

  5. I think names do influence prospective clients. Example: Editors have had mixed success with Editors Canada’s Online Directory of Editors — people with similar qualifications and experience may get very different results in terms of number of ‘hits.’ I have always suspected that our names are at least a subconscious driver of who prospects choose to talk to. I’ve had reasonable success with the ODE and have also been told a few times in my life that my (very Anglo) name has a good ring to it (so much so, apparently, that a novelist has adopted it as her own; hrmph). Maybe clients pass over names they aren’t sure how to pronounce or that make them think the person may be a non-native speaker. How do we override this tendency?

  6. I’m a tall, reasonably articulate white male with an Anglo name.

    Because of my network of friends and associates, I’ve been offered excellent jobs in the past without having to endure any competition.

    I doubt this would have been the case if my name was Vallabhbhai Patel or Kwame Nkrumah.

    I’ve worked hard, but I am not so stupid as to believe that any success I’ve had it purely attributable to my intellect and charming personality.

    Doors have opened for me in the past that have remained closed to others.

    I appreciate reading your thoughts on this topic.

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