The psychological effects of growing up with an extremely common name

How important is it to stand out?
How important is it to stand out?
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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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.   

The Sarah’s and me

Most of the Sarah’s I spoke with said that they didn’t feel much ownership over their name. “Sarah has never felt like it belonged to me or like it says much of anything about my identity,” says Sarah Balistreri, an educator in New York City. “It’s not my name so much as it’s a name I share with loads of other women. This is one of the reasons I knew from a pretty young age I wouldn’t change my last name, since I do derive a sense of self and family from it.”

Last names do seem to take on added importance for my sample group. “People often call me by my last name and I always love it, which again, may be the result of my last name being unique as opposed to my first name,” says Sarah Stoeckl, a writer who works in education technology. “I also like that my last name is not gendered, so it feels more like me-as-myself, rather than a ‘girl.’” (Not all Sarah’s have the benefit of a gender-free surname: My last name, “Todd,” is also a man’s first name that tends to call up images of pop-collared frat bros.)

Some Sarah’s said they actually appreciated sharing their name with other people. Sarah Kessler, a reporter at Quartz, told me that she always felt an instinctive affinity with the Sarah’s she met—they had something in common, right off the bat. “It was like we were part of a club,” she adds.

The joy of fitting in

There are definitely benefits to growing up with a common name, particularly as a child—when fitting in is paramount. Emily Arden, owner of the arts organization ReCreative Spaces, says that as a kid, she was delighted by how easy it was to find her name on keychains and other trinkets, and happy that the name translated across multiple cultures and nations. “I have a bowl my dad brought back from Paris with the French spelling, Emilie, that I’ve always loved,” she says. “It never bothered me that it wasn’t an ‘original’ name.”

Another Quartz coworker, growth editor Jennifer Chang, said that she appreciated that her parents—first-generation immigrants from Taiwan—had given her a popular American name. It made her feel more at ease among her classmates in a predominantly white elementary school in Texas. “Chinese parents often give their kids names that reflect good fortune or a wish for their lives,” she says, “something that will keep them safe or make them happy. So to give me a common name like Jennifer reflected a desire for me to be accepted as American.”

Many immigrants follow this logic when naming their children. A 2016 study published in the American Sociology Review, for example, looked at census data on Irish, Italian, German, and Polish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. The authors found a strong correlation between second-generation immigrants with traditionally American first names and occupational achievement. They suggest that parents who chose an American name were signaling their families’ orientation toward cultural assimilation, which worked to their children’s advantage in a society often wary of outsiders.

Given the extent to which names are often linked with cultural acceptance, some countries have even gone so far as to restrict parents’ choices to government-approved names. In Denmark, parents must select their baby’s name from a list of 7,000 government-approved possibilities—an attempt to protect children from schoolyard bullying and quizzical stares. This approach seems in keeping with the country’s so-called “Jante law”—the idea of aspiring to be average, which in turn leads to happiness, as people are satisfied when ordinary things happen to them.

Icelandic parents must pick from an even smaller curated list: 1,800 girls’ names and 1,700 boys’ names. Sweden and Norway regulate baby names as well, and France had a list—heavy on the names of Catholic saints—until 1993. Of course, some names on government-run lists are bound to be more popular than others. But they’re all indicative of the countries themselves: often-homogenous cultures that prioritize assimilation and a sense of belonging.

Making names personal

In the US and the UK, by contrast, the overall trend is toward more unique names—indicative of these culture’s more individualistic mindsets. “Finding a name that has authentic roots, but is completely undiscovered, is the ultimate baby name status symbol,” Pamela Redmond Satran, founder of the baby-naming site Nameberry, told the New York Times in 2013.

Wattenberg adds that this cultural shift also reflects anxieties about economic mobility and competition. “Parents are worried about their kids’ futures and want to carve out shelf space in the marketplace of life,” she says. “Some think that standing out with a name will help their kids do that.”

When you live in a culture that values standing out, it’s no surprise that some people with popular names try to find ways to customize their names to better suit their personalities. Kati Haynes Gulde, a freelance musician, recalls considering the various nicknames available to her as a “Katharine.”

“Katie’s were always nice and soft, something homemade or home-baked,” she says. “Someone you met through your mom. Definitely creative. Katy’s were popular, athletic, intimidating. Kate’s are really cool. They skateboard. They don’t talk much. They’re mysterious.” Ultimately, Kati decided to go with Katie, then dropped the “e” from her nickname in the sixth grade. “I felt pretty unique after that,” she says.

There’s also the option of attempting to change your name to something a bit more unusual. When I went to boarding school at age 16, I thought about going by one of my middle names, Charlotte. But I ultimately stuck with Sarah. To be a Charlotte, I felt, meant committing to a particular kind of personality—someone polished and feminine, the kind of girl who went to art galleries on weekends and spoke flawless French. The issue wasn’t so much that I didn’t feel like a Charlotte as that I was afraid of not living up to it. Sarah, by contrast, was reassuringly commitment-free.

The gift

A recent study (pdf), published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, confirms my suspicions about the anonymity conferred by a common name. Over the course of eight experiments, researchers asked people in France and Israel to look at photographs of strangers’ faces and guess their names from a list of five possible choices. Participants selected the correct name far more frequently than pure chance would allow.

Why are people able to guess the right names with such frequency? The researchers suggest it’s because our appearances are shaped by the cultural expectations and stereotypes associated with a given name.

“We show that people change their faces as they grow,” explains Anne-Laure Sellier, who co-authored the study and is a visiting assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “You’re conditioned to look a certain way, because you want to fit in and be accepted.” We expect a girl named “Joy” to be cheerful and smiley, for example, so she develops a bright personality accordingly.

But there are exceptions. “If you think of a stereotype, a stereotype for Sarah is noisy,” says Sellier. There are too many examples—Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sarah Palin, Sarah Silverman, Sarah, Plain and Tall—to conjure up a firm association.

As to whether it’s a good or bad thing to grow up with a name that’s basically a blank slate, Sellier is uncommitted. “Maybe there are too many degrees of freedom and you don’t like it,” she says. “Too much choice is not good.” On the other hand, when you’re not saddled with cultural expectations about what a person with your name ought to look or act like, you can make of yourself what you will.

And that’s the gift my parents passed onto me when they chose my name. I may not have a name that feels particularly descriptive, but it has made me feel free. As a kid I knew Sarah’s who were bookworms and Sarah’s who were bold and popular, Sarah’s who could do tricks on the jungle gym and Sarah’s who were class clowns. I read about people with my name who were inventors and musicians and activists and writers. And so I grew up understanding that I might not have to choose. In this way, perhaps parents who give their children a common name are making their own kind of wish. Keep your options open, they’re saying. You could be anyone.