On Personal Names

So I work, as I’ve mentioned a few times, with German-speaking populations in my current job. It’s fun, I love speaking German on a daily basis, and I get to use my language skills quite frequently. So it’s great. However, it’s made me realize a lot about names.

See, I have a definitive accent. Not something that means I’m unintelligible, because I’m not. I speak very clearly, but it’s very obvious that I’m not a native German speaker. Usually they think I’m an American or that I’m Czech. I only lived in Germany for a year, and even though I’ve been speaking German for 10 years now, I’ll always have something of an accent. I speak it fluently, proven multiple times over, but my accent is something that I’ll never fully outgrow. I might be able to lose most of it, were I able to live in Germany again for quite a few more years. Still, something I’ve learned in customer service, from the last 2 years working in the field, is that an accent is not always good.

That’s led to a very real realization that my German-speaking customers that I help have a definitive problem with my name. Either they can’t really hear my name correctly, which results in multiple repetitions, or the following. See, with an accent, when I introduce myself “Ich heiße Emily” — there is a very vocal tiny minority that immediately start in with rude comments about my accent, or even better from a few, how they don’t want to talk to a foreigner. No point in mentioning to this type of person (regardless of whether they’re an American in English or anyone else in their mother tongue) that depending on the time of day they call my company, probably 75% chance or more that they’re speaking to someone who learned the language as a 2nd tongue. And everyone in my company is required to be fluent in the language they support, as well as additionally being fluent in English, so no one is unintelligible no matter what language they speak.

So I got permission and I use a German name for my German guests. I figured out through a trial that they would somehow think I was saying my name was Sabine sometimes (Ich bin die Emily…) due in small to my accent, and also due to the trouble with hearing everything clearly over a phone line. And when they thought my name was Sabine or some other German name, then even the worst comments about my accent went away. It seems like the familiarity of a traditional German name means that I’m easier to relate to, and somehow magically easier to understand — not that my accent ever changed, at all.

This all means that for a good 75%+ of my day I’m being called by Sabine, which is the name I opted to use for myself. It all made me think about names, and what they do to define people.

I know lots of people choose craft names, or online monikers, or even just nicknames that are identifiers. And having experienced this upfront and seeing the effect that a name has in how people identify–it’s kind of more fascinating than the general observations that I used to look on with.

It’s interesting to me–I changed nothing but my name, and suddenly I’m easier to relate to and get less blow back from my accent. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that much, given that it is kind of obvious that people relate more to familiar. So on the German line, me being Sabine is more familiar than Emily. Perhaps not as much as it would have been even a decade ago, but it helps. People feel more comfortable with the familiar.

The same seems to hold true in the pagan/polytheist/witchcraft communities. People tend to flock towards those with the same beliefs and interests. I mean…neo-Wiccans flock together, Asatruar and Heathens tend to group, eclectics come together, etc. It’s pretty common: it’s a general theme of human nature. That’s why people like to deal with similar.

So it got me thinking about names. It would seem, based on my anecdotal experience, that even adopting a new name will either assist or detract from being close to others. So a name, as I figured out (kind of obvious, but oh well) is a good way to bond or to set apart. And often times we need the familiarity of certain names, titles, or addresses that help us connect.

Makes me realize a bit more why other people feel craft names or monikers could be so important. I’ve got a bit more appreciation for that sentiment than I used to have.


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I'm a bibliophile who loves collecting books. Definite cat person. Amateur historian and major geek, who loves all things Tolkien and Star Trek. I'm also fluent in German.

4 thoughts on “On Personal Names

  1. I experienced something similar when I lived in Japan. My American name happens to sound like a traditional Japanese name, so often my students felt they were able to talk to me sooner than my colleagues with more English syllables. Your skin is thicker than mine for talking over the phone AND getting chewed out when they don’t like your accent. *salutes*


    1. Thanks. The thick skin took some developing. I won’t lie about that. I mean, my first week on the floor, two years ago, I burst into tears the first time I ever had someone make a rude comment about my accent. But time does thicken the skin in customer service.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m surprised by your experience. Years ago after I graduated from high school I went to Salzburg, Austria, to take a beginning German class (my h.s, had not offered German and I knew that as a history major I would need this language). The people were universally warm as we practiced our budding skills — and would help us if we forgot a word. France, however, was just the opposite. It was better not to even try. Eye rollage etc. were the usual expressions on the faces of Parisians. Well, as long as Sabine gives you a reprieve that has to be good (says the lady whose name is Julia).


    1. I have an unusual situation. When I lived in Germany, talking face-to-face, I never had a single problem. Not with anyone old or young about my accent. Sure, repeating some stuff while I was still learning, but never a rude comment about my accent. But working business, on the phone, it’s a lot different than colloquial, friendly, college life in person. I think it’s more to do with the fact that it’s business than really anything about language. Some of my colleagues are second-language English speakers, and they get the same responses from Americans about their accents. So I think it is business more than any culture.


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