“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Words are important. While living abroad, I’m missing chai, not tea; I want pakoras, not fritters. Names, in turn, are important and integral to our identities. Mine is unusual, so I anticipated that it would take a bit of work for my peers at Yale to get it right. But there wasn’t really any question that they’d get it right eventually, and that they’d want to. It’s Getting-to-Know-Someone 101, right?
Except that it’s not. Learning someone’s name, and the right way to pronounce it, is both time-consuming and frustrating. When in class, do I spend my limited talking time explaining how to pronounce my name, or do I make my point? It’s a conversation I’ve had with other visiting and international students over the course of this semester. Should I anglicize my name? Or should I suffer through people mispronouncing it over and over again? Should I offer people a menu of things to call me: Rangoli, Gupta, R.G.?
The immediate response that people have to my name matters: There’s an important difference between the professor who dedicated five minutes of class time to getting my name right and the man behind me in the line at Starbucks who smiled and said, “Probably want to pick something easier next time, huh?” after I spelled my name out to the barista. It’s the difference between the roommate who asked me to break it into syllables and repeat it again and again until she got it right and the woman at the shipping center who asked me my first name and said, “Jesus. Last name, maybe?”
During my first semester back home at Ashoka University, I took a course called “Indian Civilisations” with history and politics professor Gopalkrishna Gandhi (the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi). He told us that names have weight — they represent history, our culture and our traditions. Getting them right isn’t merely about courtesy or politeness, it’s much more fundamental than that. It’s an acknowledgement of someone’s heritage. That’s why I don’t believe that wanting to get someone’s name right is just a function of how frequently you have to interact with them, or how close you are to them. However, this same understanding of heritage places another burden on the choice of what to go by: Is modifying my name a betrayal of some kind, then?
There are practical implications of people not getting your name right or your name being “difficult” — you don’t get called on in class as often, and people are hesitant about approaching you. That I am at Yale for a study abroad program throws these implications into sharp relief: What is the point of coming here if I can’t take full advantage of the academic opportunities before me? Perhaps as a response to this very question, Yale launched a program called “NameCoach” in late January, which “gave students the ability to record [their] names in [their] own voice as [they] wanted it to be spoken.”
It’s a recognition of the fact that names aren’t trivial, that getting them right is important. NameCoach is connected to Canvas and Yale’s student information portal, so that professors, other students and everyone else at Yale can access the recordings easily. But it’s still entirely voluntary, so while I agree that it is a step in the right direction, I am apprehensive about whether it will be effective.
All of this is not to say that I don’t appreciate this opportunity — my semester so far has been amazing. I’ve taken classes taught by excellent faculty members, traveled, interacted with exceptional peers and so much more. But I’ve also become cognizant of the privilege I enjoy back home, where just saying, “Hi, I’m Rangoli” doesn’t automatically present an obstacle that I have to overcome. It’s also made me more careful about not inflicting the same circumstances onto others.
A rose by any other name might smell just as sweet, but would the most famous love story in the world be as famous as it is if it were called “Romeo and Jaidynmina?”
Rangoli Gupta is a student in the Visiting International Program in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .