An unusual name can be a conversation starter. How do you pronounce that? Where does that come from? Does that mean something?

A series of conversations centered around the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD) at the Institute for Social Research have recently provided me with some new perspective on what it means, culturally, to have a unique name. 

The Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan has since the postwar been furiously studying human behavior in social contexts; its researchers have often observed and explored people in real-world settings to make clear the two-way linkages between individuals’ psychological lives and their social worlds.

Last week I met Katrina Ellis, an RCGD affiliate and James S. Jackson Emerging Scholar who was at the time co-hosting the reunion of the Program for Research on Black Americans.

Upon meeting, Dr. Ellis asked me about the pronunciation and origins of my unusual name. It’s unique, actually– invented by my parents. They discovered the Hebrew word for nature in a book– teva– tweaked the pronunciation, and slapped on a decorative h. Introducing: Tevah (TAY-vuh).

Dr. Ellis then described an article she had recently read in the Times reporting that new laws will put constraints on unconventional names in Japan, where they are on the rise. The root of the issue there, Dr. Ellis told me, was not just cultural but linguistic: the characters used to write traditional Japanese names have multiple pronunciations, rendering unusual names essentially unreadable.

. . .

The article was perfectly timed to ignite the lights of recent learnings for me, because I’d just attended RCGD’s fall seminar series on “Psychological Diversity across the Globe.” The series, with an incredible lineup of speakers, was organized by Catherine Thomas, whose research on social and cultural inclusion has implications for addressing poverty and inequality, and Shinobu Kitayama, whose foundational work in socio-cultural psychology has underscored the power of culture in shaping how we regard ourselves. 

Read the complete article in Research Center for Group Dynamics