(Quartz) The psychological effects of growing up with an extremely common name
WRITTEN BY Sarah Todd May 09, 2017
There’s a line in a poem by Czeslaw Milosz that’s always stuck with me: “Love means to learn to look at yourself/ The way one looks at distant things/ For you are only one thing among many.” The key to happiness, the poem suggests, is to understand that you’re not that special—so that you can better relate to the world around you.
I love that idea, since I’ve never felt particularly exceptional. After all, I grew up with the name Sarah.
Between 1980 and 2000, the name “Sarah” consistently ranked as the fourth- or fifth-most-popular name in the US. I was born in 1983. The practical effect of this was that I spent my childhood expecting to be one of many anytime I walked into a room. My own father hollered “Sarah Todd” whenever a friend called on the landline, just to distinguish me from all the other Sarah’s who might be hanging out upstairs in my bedroom.
If the purpose of a name is to signify an object, a very common first name seems like a pretty ineffective signifier. When people on the street say my name, I often don’t bother to turn around, knowing that there are probably other Sarah’s in close proximity. And so I think of “Sarah” less as a name that’s specific to me and more as a general descriptor—another word for “woman” or “girl,” or something else that applies both to me and to a lot of other people, too.
Recently, I got curious about whether other people with very popular names felt similarly unattached to their own monikers. There’s been plenty of publicity about the possible drawbacks—and benefits—of unique names. But what are the psychological effects of growing up with a name that you have to share with everyone else?
What’s in a name?
The fact that I’m even bothering to ask this question is a sign of the times, according to Laura Wattenberg, founder of the baby-naming site Baby Name Wizard.
“I think in past generations, parents were much more concerned about their kids’ names fitting in. But in the past 20 years, the focus has been 100% on standing out,” Wattenberg says. “Parents are really, really worried about their kids being ordinary.”
Wattenberg attributes the cultural shift to several factors, including the introduction of baby-name statistics and the cable TV explosion, which let people see a wider variety of names. But the most important change was the dawn of the digital era. “Two aspects of the internet had a big impact,” Wattenberg says. “All of us were choosing user names and becoming accustomed to the idea that a name has to be unique to be usable.” Search engines also changed the way we think about names. “It used to be that if there was a Sophie Adamson, there would be 100 other Sophie Adamson’s and she’d never know about them. But now parents type a name into the search engine, see the name is ‘taken,’ and panic.”
It’s understandable that parents get nervous about picking a name: Our names send a signal to the world about who we are. At a basic level, they may hint at our age, ethnicity, and religion. Research shows that our names can also reflect our families’ socioeconomic status and political affiliations. Because they disclose so much information to the world, choosing a name is a high-stakes game. As Maria Konnikova writes in The New Yorker, “We see a name, implicitly associate different characteristics with it, and use that association, however unknowingly, to make unrelated judgments about the competence and suitability of its bearer.”
But there is an exception: Extremely common, classic names give very little away. Biblical names like these never really go out of style, which means their bearers can be almost any age. They can be Jewish names, or Christian ones, or religiously unaffiliated. There are white Michael’s and David’s and Mary’s, and black, Latino, and Asian ones too. And these names are not particularly linked to politics: According to a 2016 Political Behavior study, “White mothers in liberal neighborhoods are just as likely to give their children Biblical names like Jacob, Daniel, Hannah, or Sarah as mothers in conservative neighborhoods.”
And so giving your child a classic, common name can be a way to steer clear of cultural stereotypes and unjust discrimination. Historically, Wattenberg says, research has shown that people find familiar, easy-to-pronounce names to be likable and trustworthy. When you hear from a person with a name like Dave or Jen or Mike, “you’re more likely to answer their email, more likely to swipe right on Tinder,” she says.
But a lot of people rightfully take pride in having a distinctive name that speaks to their family’s culture and origins. And bearing a name that practically screams “basic” can present its own challenges. To find out what those obstacles might be, I first turned to my natural cohort: a sampling of Sarah’s.