Name Changes

Aunt Alice

My girlfriend has an aunt. Let’s call her Aunt Alice. We recently moved cross country, and it so happens that we are now geographically very near to Aunt Alice. We get to see her on some weekends, as well as during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Super Bowl.

But Aunt Alice is not Alice anymore; her name is now Lisa. She moved here about 20 years ago, right around the time my girlfriend was a toddler. And right around that time is when she changed her name.

Having never spent much time together, most of what my girlfriend knew or found out about Aunt Alice was through other family members, or the occasional visit. And most of what I knew about Aunt Alice was through my girlfriend. Since my girlfriend calls her Aunt Alice, so do I. It’s become natural for me to call her this. At this point, switching to calling her Aunt Lisa would be weird. And I’ve only known her for a year, imagine my girlfriend, who’s called her Aunt Alice her whole life!

Same Thing, Different Names

If you call a trans person by their “old” name, they’ll be sure to get offended, or at the very least mildly hurt. In that case, what about calling a non-trans person by their “old” name? Wouldn’t that be equally disrespectful? Being a transperson myself, you’d think I’d be more aware of these situations. But as it turns out, I hadn’t realized that I was facing one.

So, to avoid being disrespectful, we decided to ask Aunt Alice whether she minded that we called her Aunt Alice, or if she would prefer we call her Aunt Lisa. Turns out she doesn’t mind at all. Most of her family continues calling her by her original name, including her siblings and nieces and nephews. And her older son, if asked by someone from her hometown, will answer with Alice as well.

It seems the name she gets called depends on context. Those who knew her before her “transition” still call her by her old name, and would find the switch to the new name strange, even though this new name has been new for a whole 20 years! I imagine this is similar to what transgendered people experience when changing their name. Now add gender to the mix, and you get some confused people awkwardly trying to make an effort.

Cognitive Schemas

The difficulty in switching from calling someone Aunt Alice to Aunt Lisa makes a lot of sense. And the same can be said for referring to someone as “she” and then “he”, or as Carlos and then Carla. People create cognitive schemas very quickly, and those related to human beings are constructed especially quick and are the most resilient. One of the very first objects babies start to recognize are human faces. Now, to completely replace one deeply engrained cognitive schema with another is not an easy task; certainly not one human minds are accustomed to. Hence the mistakes even well-intentioned people make when someone is transitioning. This may also be why most people have such a hard time accepting that you are changing a core part of you, when you are not changing you.

4 thoughts on “Name Changes

  1. I’m not sure about others, but I personally find that it’s easier to remember/accept name changes for trans people. It’s a lot easier when the new name is associated with a new gender.

    Actually, it might be physical changes, the face-mapping thing. One of my aunts got breast implants, a nose-job and changed her name, which seemed easier to accept than my friend who just changed his name.

    I think people have an easier time when there’s a ‘new you’ they can actually see.

  2. We all change in various ways throughout our lives, and we want people to accept that we change. Often people are reluctant to do so. They want us to stay the same. I might be a little odd in preferring to allow others to change, something that was true even before I made the biggest change in my own life. So even though “Aunt Alice” is easy about what she is called, I would likely want to honour her choice by calling her by her chosen name. I’m flexible! 🙂

  3. I identify strongly with your Aunt Alice. For me the name I wish to be called varies strongly by situation. Most of my friends, RL and OL, know my “real” name, but if I’m in a “public” space online, I feel like if they call me by it, it’s like lifting my shirt and groping my breast in public. But I’m okay with it in a “private” space where it’s just friends. I have this list of people who are “allowed” to call me by that name, and if there are people there who aren’t on the list, I get very upset.

    Conversely, I expect people in my professional life to use my “real” name. I would be shocked and taken aback if I were called by any of my internet handles when referencing my publications, for example.

    Of course, the edge cases of discussing my publications in a public online space gets… interesting….

    1. Imagine publishing your research papers as @AceUnicornNyanCat – hilarious! Yes, it seems context is an important factor in using names.

      My dad actually met Aunt Alice this weekend, and it was interesting to see my girlfriend stumble in her introduction – this is my Aunt A… err.. Li-sa. Even though we call her Alice and she is perfectly fine with that, it DID seem disrespectful to introduce her as Alice to someone new, and I’d imagine she’d be less fine with that. It seems as close family we get a free pass.

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