T.J. Sullivan

Names matter

kittensI am a member of a fraternity that very consciously chose decades ago to stop using the word “pledge” and instead call its newest brothers “associate members.”  It better represented the investment the young men were making in our organization and gave them a less diminutive status.  I’m sure part of the motivation was to also distance the fraternity from the hazing seems inseparable from the “pledging” experience.

When I hear a Pi Kapp call a new member a pledge, I always ask him what fraternity he’s in?  Clearly he can’t be in mine.  Then, I get the eye roll, because most students don’t think it matters what you call a new member.

I strongly disagree. I think names are very powerful. There have been numerous studies about how a child’s name impacts his or her cultural identity, job prospects and, possibly, his or her behavior.

I love the Freakonomics story about a young girl named “Temptress” by her parents.  They loved the actress Tempestt Bledsoe from The Cosby Show, and thought they were naming her after the actress.  At the time, they didn’t know that temptress was a word, much less what it meant.  Later, the teenage girl found herself in court for entertaining male callers in her parents’ home.

Was she acting out her name, or were a wide variety of factors to blame?

What you call someone matters.  If you heard me in the grocery store calling my 11-year-old son an “asshole,” you’d assume I was an abusive parent.  What if I rolled my eyes at you and told you that it didn’t matter what I called him?

Now imagine the message your faculty advisor gets when you call your new members “babies.”  I doubt it sends the message that you’re a respectable, significant organization.

Eye roll…

The names we use signify so much. Look at the evolution of culturally-preferred names for African Americans in the last 40 years.  Look at the newly minted Ph.D. who likes to be called “Doctor.” We use names to signify significance, and we use them to implement power dynamics – sometimes with benign intent and a smile on our face.  We call the new employee “the new guy” so that others don’t expect much from him.  We call the player a “rookie” to make sure he knows his place in the team’s pecking order.

Everyone knows why your fraternity brother’s nickname is “Beer Can.”  Message received.

Cuteness doesn’t mitigate the message.  Calling your new sorority sister a “baby” might appear endearing, but it sends a message: “You are a helpless little thing, and I’m going to take care of you.”  If you want your new members to impact your campus, get good grades, and become leaders, then call them champions, or amazons, or ass-kickers, or achievers.  Call your new fraternity members titans, gladiators, scholars or investors.

Let’s try that for a semester.  ”I’d like to introduce you to one of our ass-kickers, Natalie.”  Are the Amazons attending chapter this evening?  Who is doing the training session for the investors tomorrow night?  If that sounds dumb to you, then you’re beginning to understand how dumb it sounds when you call them “kittens.”

Names matter.  They express values. Parents spend months debating names that will be most appreciated by their social circle and that best reflect their identity.  That’s why a Subaru-driving white urban liberal names his daughter Annabeth or Una, while a pick-up driving farmer calls his son Shane or Jack.  That’s why less educated non-white mothers valuing status are more likely to create a name no one can spell, while conservative suburban parents who value norm compliance are surrounded by children named Madison and Conner.

Give some thought to the names you use for new members.  Whether demeaning or cutesy, what message do using these names send? What message about your expectations do they send to your new members, themselves?  What messages do they send to campus faculty, Student Affairs professionals an others standing just outside your group?

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One Response to “Names matter”

  1. Whitney says:

    Love this! No need to infantilize your new members. Calling them “babies” signals you’re willing to clean up their spit-up and change their diaper and that you expect nothing better from them.

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