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Should you maybe change your last name so people like you better?

Monday, March 26, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

So you may have read about the life-long curse of an unpopular first name. But there’s more. Before you run off to change your first name, you may want to consider your last name as well!

I’ve always liked my last name. It’s unusual and it’s phonetic. Hand. Rich. Simple. I never understood why people mangled it so much. Hendricks. Handrick. Handridge. By the time I completed my Ph.D., I knew I would rarely be Dr. Handrich. Instead, I went by Rita. When I worked in an environment where it was unseemly to be called by your first name, the residents of that facility gratefully called me “Dr. H”.

So seeing this research on how much more people like ‘simple’ and common names doesn’t seem particularly novel to me but then my last name is simple compared to the exemplar used by the researchers: Colquhoun.

We’ve talked about how women with masculine-ish sounding first names [like Jim] are more likely to become judges. But there is a whole lot more. Your first name portends both your income and educational level. Boys with girls’ names are more likely to be suspended from school. (But Johnny Cash told us that one long ago.) The popularity of your first name also predicts whether you will be a juvenile delinquent! Surely that is enough. Well, guess what. The simpler your last name, the more likely you are to advance in a law firm! Seriously? Let’s back up a bit and go through the research.

This research is based on the literature on processing fluency. In short, the same body of research that talks about why we don’t like to listen to people with accents speak English. It’s simply too much work. Researchers conducted five separate experiments to look at the effect of an easy to pronounce last name.

Experiment 1 found that people with easy to pronounce last names were seen as more likable.

Experiment 2 found that political candidates on ballots were more popular when they had easy to pronounce last names.

Experiment 3 found that when political candidates names were embedded in a newspaper story about a local election, the candidate with the easier to pronounce last name was deemed “more suitable” for the position than those with harder to pronounce last names.

Experiment 4 found that when participants rated both in group (a citizen of their own country) and out group (a citizen from another country) surnames, they found the easier to pronounce surname more “likable”.

Experiment 5 gathered a list of 500 US lawyers first and last names from law firm websites.

“To sample randomly but widely, we extracted 50 names from each of ten firms that varied in size from the largest US firm to the 178th largest US firm (using the website: http://www.ilrg.com/nlj250).”

The names were then rated by undergraduate research participants for ease of pronunciation and foreignness. The researchers determined that attorneys with foreign sounding names had likely been employed for shorter periods of time and thus only ran comparisons on those with Anglo-American sounding surnames. You know what they found. The easier to pronounce names were of those lawyers occupying superior positions in company hierarchies.

Wow. This takes that first-impression effect and ramps it up a few notches. All the witness preparation in the world can’t change the impact of your surname. Or can it? We would argue it can. You can diminish the impact of an unusual last name by simply asking the witness about pronunciation and offering a self-deprecating apology for inquiring. Share their understandable difficulty. The witness can then (charmingly) explain the pronunciation of their last name and offer a simplified version for use in court. (“If you prefer, you can simply call me Dr. C.”) If opposing counsel persists in struggling (genuinely or not) with the witness’ surname regardless of the encouragement to use the simpler version, the witness can make eye contact and smile at jurors and the damage is likely reversed. After all, making something difficult when an easy solution is offered starts to sound rude.

The most important thing is that jurors see someone being “different” as unimportant to them while they struggle with issues that really do matter. Jurors only ask that your client or witness communicates with them in a respectful, clear and comprehensible fashion. That’s a lot more important than a difficult to pronounce last name.

And by the way. It’s Hand-rich. But you can call me Rita.

Laham, S., Koval, P., & Alter, A. (2012). The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (3), 752-756 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.002

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