Character  &  Context

Adopting Their Names? The Upsides and Downsides

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By Xian Zhao

Immigrants and visitors to a new country may wonder whether they would better fit in by adopting a name that reflects the majority culture. For example, should a Han Chinese with the name “小冉(Xiǎorǎn)” adopt an Anglo name “Elizabeth” in the US? Should a White American with the name “Mark” adopt a Han Chinese name “龙” (Lóng, meaning “dragon”) in China? Should a Mexican immigrant use the name “Joe” instead of “José” in the US? Should an Uyghur Chinese “گۈلنەزەر بەختىيار (Gülnezer Bextiyar)” use a Mandarin-based-translated-shortened name “古力娜扎(Gǔlìnàzhā)” when she lives in provinces with majorities of Han Chinese?

People may adopt an ethnic majority name for many reasons. Xian may use “Alex” because he does not want Americans’ difficulty with pronunciation to render him invisible. Huan may use “Rachel” because she intends to assimilate into the mainstream US culture and be naturalized. Hyesook (a Korean first name) may use “Nora” to avoid hearing “Hi, hey” every time she is greeted. Luxi may use “Lucy” because the pronunciation of the two names is so similar. Of course, not everyone changes their names when living or interacting in a different country. Yao Ming and Xi Jinping are still called by these names in the US, and still retain the Chinese ordering of names (family name first).

Since 2014, I have started to investigate the effect of adoption of Anglo names under the supervision of my advisor, Monica Biernat. First, we wanted to explore how adoption of Anglo given names leads to reduced discrimination compared with keeping original ethnic names. Because self-categorization theory suggests that people consistently treat ingroup members more favorably than outgroup members, we derived hypotheses from a partial ingroup membership framework that ethnic minorities are perceived as partial ingroup members by the majority group when they signal an intention to assimilate (e.g., adopting Anglo names and accents). One field experiment showed that the use of an ethnic name by a prospective graduate student led to fewer responses and agreements to meet from White American professors (especially associate professors) than using an Anglicized name (Zhao & Biernat, 2017, Study 1). But, another study suggests that this can change depending on a person’s beliefs. Our lab experiment documented that the tendency to devalue Chinese teaching assistants who use their original names (rather than Anglicized names) is marked among those who endorse assimilationist ideologies, but reversed among those who value multiculturalism (Zhao & Biernat, 2017, Study 2).

Next, we took the perspective of ethnic minorities, and wanted to test whether ethnic minorities’ health and well-being are associated with Anglo name adoption. Among Chinese students in the US, we found that anglicizing ethnic names was negatively associated with well-being and mental health, effects that were explained by self-esteem (Zhao & Biernat, under review). In addition, perceived memorability (the extent to which participants thought their names can be memorized by the majority group) and perceived pronounceability (the extent to which participants thought their names can be pronounced by the majority group) of Chinese names negatively predicted adopting Anglo names. These findings suggest some potential negative consequences of relinquishing one’s original name.

Since names are vital tools for communication, we wanted to extend these two initial studies by studying how names affect actual in-person interactions. Specifically, we investigated how adopting Anglo names by Chinese students, and how learning how to pronounce Chinese names by White Americans, affect intergroup interactions. One Chinese student and one White American student form an intergroup dyad. Chinese students are randomly assigned to use their original names or to use an Anglo name during the interaction, and White American students are trained (or not) in the pronounceability of the Chinese name. We predict higher quality interactions in both the condition that Chinese students are asked used an Anglo name (primarily from the White partner’s perspective) and in the condition that White American students learn to pronounce their Chinese partners’ names before the conversation. However, at the same time an Anglo name may smooth interactions for White students, Chinese students may suffer negative consequences (e.g., lower self-esteem), as in our earlier research.  

Finally, we wondered whether adopting the ethnic majority name can have consequences not just for perceptions of people, but perceptions of products. We apply these ideas to a marketing context—how use of Anglo names or original ethnic names may promote willingness to purchase Chinese food in the US. Drawing on labeling effects, we predict that when an unfamiliar Chinese dish (e.g., black chicken, 乌鸡) is affiliated with information that indicates trustworthiness (e.g., the chef is called Alex Wang, a partial ingroup member), participants will rate the unfamiliar Chinese dish more favorably and will pay more to purchase it. Conversely, for a familiar Chinese dish (e.g., orange chicken), when it is affiliated with information that indicates its authenticity (e.g., the chef is called Xiao Wang), participants will rate it more favorably and pay more for it. Results of this study may point to the ability of Anglicized names to either help or hurt sales, via different mechanisms (trustworthiness in the case of an unfamiliar product, lack of authenticity in the case of a familiar product).

We have been studying the adoption of Anglo names as a window to understanding the role of names for identity, perception, affect, and intergroup behavior. Through these four lines of research, we hope to reveal the consequences—both good and bad—of adopting ethnic majority names for both actors and perceivers, and to apply this knowledge to different fields, such as communication and marketing.


Xian Zhao is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas. His research focuses on intergroup relations from the perspective of cultural psychology. 

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