Kyla, Not Kayla: The Impact of Being Called the Wrong Name

A lot of people call me by the wrong name.

Some variation of Kyle, Kayla (most common), or Kylie will normally replace the two-syllable name that my parents bestowed upon me twenty-two years ago (pronounced kuh/eye-la). Kyla means “triumphant” in Gaelic, a nod to my second-generation Irish heritage.

But all of my life, I’ve been called the wrong name. Often. Almost every single day. I’ve never understood it.

I actually keep track of it, because I live a life of charts and graphs. On average, 75% of people call me the wrong name. 45% do it again. And approximately 10% continue to do it, into eternity (rough estimates).

When I was younger, I made a pact with myself to never be friends with someone who called me the wrong name. A bit harsh, but I wanted to stay true to myself. Also, I was usually too nonconfrontational to correct anyone, so I practiced a strong avoidance technique.

I’ve loosened those regulations a bit, but it still bites whenever someone says “Kayla” – especially if they’ve known me for a while.

It seems as though I am unimportant, not worthy of remembering. I know that (hopefully) is not the intention of the person, but I still feel a sharp pang when it happens. It’s embarrassing.

I did some reading on the subject to try and figure out what this was doing to me psychologically (everything is an experiment in my world, for better or worse).

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” according to Romeo, from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

I am here to radically disagree with Romeo.

What’s in a Name?

A name is your identity. It’s what people call you, it’s what you respond to, it’s what you understand about yourself. From the day we are born, we are assigned this identifier. Some people get nicknames or change their name entirely after they are born, but the common thread is a NAME.

Every single thing on planet Earth has a name.

Even if something has no-name, it still has a name, because no-name is a name within itself (how’s that for some philosophy?)

Having an identity is one of the most important things to our human nature.”Personal identity” is tied to our self-worth, how we see ourselves represented on a broad global stage among 7 billion other people.

Norbert Wiley defines self-identity as:

“Self-identity is not a distinctive trait, or even a collection of traits possessed by the individual. It is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography. Identity here still presumes continuity across time and space: but self-identity is such continuity as interpreted reflexively by the agent.”

The below diagram illustrates how we view ourselves, and what composes our sense of identity. We pull information from the environment, from the relationships we have, our memories, our thoughts, and how we reflect ourselves to others.

Languages 04 00083 g002 550
Source: Ulric Neisser

A name is many things, ranging from an “important anchor point of identity” to a “determining factor in personality development“. Names are “Semiotic” or a symbol for a person. How we interpret that name is depicted in the triangle below, also known as the “semiotic prism”.

What does that name mean to you as you search for your sense of self? How do others interpret it? What signal does it send to the world? A name gives you the avenue to answer all of those questions.

Sean Jean Combs is a good example of the power and the identity that a name carries. He went by Diddy, P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, or Bad Boy to segment his work – rapping, producing, or designing. There wasn’t Sean Jean Combs rapping, producing, and designing. That way each aspect of his life got a full allowance of his identity.

Perhaps a bit extreme. But the idea of creating yourself to be present in all parts of your life is interesting. But what happens when our names are taken away from us entirely?

The Westernization of Names

A lot of name research discourse is around the Westernization of names. When immigrants come to the U.S., there is an expectation of acculturation – you will assimilate into this culture, take these names, act the same way we do.

But different cultures have different rules for naming their children. In South Korea, some parents bring in experts to incorporate a child’s saju (a person’s fortune) into their name. In China, some names are comprised of a monosyllabic surname followed by a given name, which sometimes reflects the parent’s future expectations of the child.

You can’t take that away from people. I speak from a pedestal of privilege when I complain about my name being said wrong – it’s just because people look at it quickly or don’t pay attention to the letters – it’s not because they don’t know how to pronounce it.

Yejin Lee wrote a beautiful piece about the power of mispronunciation in 2018, writing to her time as a Korean born in the U.S., and the constant struggle with the idea of “Other-ness” or “foreignness.” People would say things like:

“Don’t you have an American name?” or “It’s too hard, I’m just going to make up a nickname for you” or “You can’t expect me to say your name correctly since it’s not in English.” 

Those are all signals that the name difference is unwelcome. That Yejin was unwelcome. That Yejin was different. Social isolation is never a comforting feeling.

We all like to hear our name said. I used to sell cars, and one of the things that we were taught was to repeat the name of the customer back to them. It’s immediately a feeling of comfort and connection.

A Rose By Another Name Would Not Be A Rose

As I mentioned previously, I write from a place of privilege. My biggest complaint is that people say my name wrong. I’ve never been asked to change my name (although someone did ask if they could call me Kayla instead). I’ve never been told that I don’t belong because my name is different.

Our world is becoming increasingly globalized. The barriers to entry to global travel are low. People are still coming to the U.S., and people are still leaving the U.S. Connection across cultures are increasingly common, but that doesn’t mean that our sense of culture just disappears.

Homogeneity is not a place of growth. If things were the same all the time, we would never have a spark that allows for improvements and expansions and advancements. We need diversity of thought and diversity of perspective.

And we can’t have that if we don’t allow people the very root of their human self – their name. Romeo was wrong. A rose is a rose for a reason.

Calling it a daffodil doesn’t diminish the inherent power of the rose, but it does diminish what the rose feels about being a rose. Take great care in pronouncing the rose’s name correctly. No one likes being called the wrong thing.

We all deserve a name, and we deserve it to be said correctly.

Call a rose a rose, or whatever it asks to be called.

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