Do you have an unusual name? Your parents’ cultural sense of self may have something to do with it.

Woman listing baby namesAn unusual name can be a conversation starter. How do you pronounce that? Where does that come from? Does that mean something?

A series of conversations centered around the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD) at the Institute for Social Research have recently provided me with some new perspective on what it means, culturally, to have a unique name. 

The Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan has since the postwar been furiously studying human behavior in social contexts; its researchers have often observed and explored people in real-world settings to make clear the two-way linkages between individuals’ psychological lives and their social worlds.

Last week I met Katrina Ellis, an RCGD affiliate and James S. Jackson Emerging Scholar who was at the time co-hosting the reunion of the Program for Research on Black Americans. 

Upon meeting, Dr. Ellis asked me about the pronunciation and origins of my unusual name. It’s unique, actually– invented by my parents. They discovered the Hebrew word for nature in a book– teva– tweaked the pronunciation, and slapped on a decorative h. Introducing: Tevah (TAY-vuh).

Dr. Ellis then described an article she had recently read in the Times reporting that new laws will put constraints on unconventional names in Japan, where they are on the rise. The root of the issue there, Dr. Ellis told me, was not just cultural but linguistic: the characters used to write traditional Japanese names have multiple pronunciations, rendering unusual names essentially unreadable.

Dr. Ellis later shared that New York Times article, where Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo on what are known as kira-kira (flashy, glittery) names: “Japanese children with unconventional names face societal and practical challenges unique to their country and its written language,” she wrote. “Citing those difficulties, the government is now moving to rein in the practice, while insisting it is not closing off space for parents to be creative.”

The article was perfectly timed to ignite the lights of recent learnings for me, because I’d just attended RCGD’s fall seminar series on “Psychological Diversity across the Globe.” The series, with an incredible lineup of speakers, was organized by Catherine Thomas, whose research on social and cultural inclusion has implications for addressing poverty and inequality, and Shinobu Kitayama, whose foundational work in socio-cultural psychology has underscored the power of culture in shaping how we regard ourselves. 

Dr. Kitayama’s work has probed cultural differences between Westerners and East Asians. “In some cultures, particularly in Western traditions, the ‘self’ is believed to be the independent entity that is composed of internal attributes, maybe your attitudes, maybe your personality traits and aspirations, which guide your behavior. Social relationships come out of those individual preferences,” he said on the Social Science Bites podcast last year. “In many other cultures, the conception of the person is much more social and relational. There’s a fundamental belief that humans are humans because they are connected to formal social relationships.”

Cultural individualism vs. collectivism was a recurring theme in RCGD’s fall seminar series, and psychologists have inventive ways of measuring it. One common test is to ask subjects to diagram their web of social connections and to measure the relative size of the circles they draw around persons in the web. (Western cultures tend to enlarge the “self” circle.) Another is to look for patterns in the way people draw thematic connections; which two would you pair among a winter hat, a mitten, and a hand? (Western cultures tend to associate the hat and mitten).  Real-world observations and experiments add another body of evidence to this domain. Dr. Kitayama cites the prevalence of the sacrifice bunt in Japanese baseball (Western cultures underutilize the strategy). Thomas Talhelm of the University of Chicago, who gave a stand-out presentation in the RCGD series, presented experimental data on “manspreading” based on measures of the space individuals took up in Starbucks cafes worldwide. (The USA is the top culprit). 

Several presenters raised questions about what features of our society, including geographic and ecological factors they argued have profound and lasting impact on culture over thousands of years, lay the cultural groundwork of our everyday behaviors, like where we set down our backpacks, or maybe…how we name our children. 

Shinobu KitayamaIt turns out that Dr. Kitayama has investigated this question as well. In 2010, he co-authored a study with Michael E. W. Varnum, reporting that popular names are less common on frontiers. In three studies, they found that regional variations in baby naming corresponded to differences in those regions’ history of settlement. “People are more likely to choose a relatively popular name in regions with a longer history of settlement, and people in regions that were more recently settled are more likely to choose a relatively uncommon name,” they wrote of their findings from the US, Canada, and a cross-national comparison in Europe. “We believe that harsh, sparsely populated, and socially mobile frontier conditions foster values of independence…. Such behaviors are likely to be incorporated into the regional cultural ethos, and, as a consequence, they may be transmitted across generations even when the geographic frontiers have long since disappeared.”

I recently emailed Dr. Kitayama to ask his perspective on the new naming trends (and legal backlash) in Japan.

Names are just names, but they are names. They matter,” he replied. “In some cases, parents name their children in unique ways since they hope their children to be independent, unique, etc. Freely expressing their desire this way may also be seen as a sign of individualism. But in many other cases, especially in Japan, I wonder if parents naming their children in extremely unique ways might treat their children like their possessions and have fun naming them any way they want. I wonder if this might be an ultimate form of authoritarian familism, combined with the unhinged assertion of personal preferences on the part of the parents. …Is it individualism or parental authoritarianism? …Regardless, the seemingly new naming convention has come to be like a nail that is sticking up in Japan. There appears to be a lot of backlash.”

Growing up in the US I have experienced mixed reactions to my name – but nothing like one observer cited in the Times described it in Japan: “If you have a kira-kira name, other people will look at you and think that your parents are socially inept or unintelligent.”

Dr. Kitayama later added a final observation– that it is one thing to study the use of unconventional names and another to study the proportion of the most common names–say, the top 10. By the latter measure, he said, individualism inversely predicts it both within the US and across societies. “I suspect the use of ‘weird’ names could mean something else,” he said. “This could be a good topic for someone in our program.”

I remember thinking a lot about names before my daughter was born 12 years ago. A lot of factors went into our naming decision: We considered cadence and meaning and chose a first initial (W) in memory of a family member. We picked a name that was not unique. But I do remember looking up the most popular names that year in order to specifically avoid the most common ones. “Culture” can be an inconspicuous force behind our actions, but I’m sure it’s my sense of self, history that preceded me, and the relationships around me that made me do that.

The Research Center for Group Dynamics series is considered to be one of the longest running seminar series in the social sciences. It has been running uninterruptedly since it was founded by Kurt Lewin in the 1920’s in Berlin. The Winter 2024 series, organized by Beverly Strassmann and co-sponsored by the Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, will be on “Evolution and Human Behavior.”

This post was written by Tevah Platt, communications specialist for the Research Center for Group Dynamics.