What’s In A Name? Different Ways the “East and West” Handle it in Daily Life and Business
Peoples of all races must, I would assume, customarily attach a lot of importance to personal names—usually a surname and given name (though not in all cultures, e.g. the Javanese of Indonesia usually have just one name, like Soekarno). Our names are the label of our self-identity because that’s how we refer to ourselves and how others refer to us. Interestingly, personal names are treated differently from culture to culture, reflecting differences in values. I would like to share with you some differences I’ve personally observed between Western and Eastern cultures.
One of the first things I learned about Canadian standards of politeness when we first moved here from Singapore 14 years ago was the proper way to refer to one’s own family members. When my wife and I were talking with one of her Canadian friends, I casually used the word “her” to refer to my wife. “You must say B.!,” she reprimanded me sternly for using a pronoun instead of her name. Even if she’s right there, so I couldn’t possibly be demeaning her, I still had to use her name. My excuse would be that many Japanese men above 60 today would still use familiar terms to refer to their wives and kids out of a “Japanese sense of politeness.” One tries to use as unceremonious terms as possible to refer to close family members, so as not to appear to be bragging about them. Enryo (reservation) might be the word for it, but the idea certainly doesn’t—and never did— translate properly into the context of traditional Canadian values. I’d forgotten momentarily that I wasn’t in Japan. Some readers of my generation might understand.
Another striking experience with names occurred back in 1981 when I moved to Singapore from Tokyo, having been hired as a journalist for a new English language daily that was about to be launched. The day after I arrived, a Chinese Singaporean senior editor was taking me around the office, introducing me to my new colleagues. They comprised Singaporeans and Malaysians of Chinese and Indian origin, Englishmen, Sri Lankans, etc., in other words, a fairly typical mix of races and cultures for Singapore. “This is the sports editor,” the senior editor said, adding, “his name is Percy Sene…, Sene… whatever… it’s too complicated, so we just call him Percy.” I was astonished!!
Having worked as a journalist off and on for 15 years by then, I’d more or less assumed that all professional journalists of whatever country had the basic skill of learning people’s names. We always had to get names right in the stories we wrote. We all had own ways of memorizing important names that cropped up often. It was apparently no big deal in Singapore’s multi-racial society not to know accurately the names of colleagues, even for a journalist! In many ways, it was an eye-opener of an introduction to the media in that country.
Callous name handling, more often than not with no offense intended, is not uncommon in multi-ethnic societies including ours. But in the real world of business, too, quite apart from the social etiquette aspect, ability to remember people’s names, along with faces that go with them, is obviously an important practical skill.
That daily evening newspaper folded after four years for reasons I have yet to fathom (not an uncommon denouement in Singapore), so, after a short stint with a local TV network, I joined a major government agency. I was hired as a PR man responsible for producing promotional material to bring corporate investments into Singapore, writing speeches and handling Japanese corporate clients whenever the necessity arose.
One callous name-handler I recall well from those days, albeit an unwitting one I’m sure, was a senior Scandinavian diplomat responsible for promoting business and trade with Singapore. The man was supposedly an old Asia-hand, having served in Tokyo for many years previously. During a business lunch, he casually referred to an important Singaporean counterpart as “This fellow…his name is Tan something, I can’t remember exactly.” It just so happens that Tan and Lim are by far the two commonest surnames among Singaporeans of Chinese origin (who make up 75% of the population). So probably every third person you meet is named either a Tan something or Lim something. “I don’t remember his name,” was what the diplomat was really saying. The technique that has worked for me is to memorize Chinese names, usually three syllables (i.e. one syllable surname followed by two syllable given name), as though they are single three-syllable words.
As important as we hold personal names and titles to be, the use of business cards has long been a de rigeur throughout the “civilized” world including Japan. There, the design and printing of name cards along with the etiquette on their use have evolved into a “niche culture” of its own in the usual Japanese way. There are myriad choices in the kind of paper, the kind of type face and design, as well as the proper way of presenting a name—with the printed words oriented toward the receiver, accompanied by a slight bow of your head, etc..
If I may inject my own idea about respecting names in the context of name cards, I’ve always respected the name my parents gave me in its original form in kanji, the “Japanese/Chinese” characters, so I always put my name in kanji along with Romaji on my name card. As you know, people coming from Japan who use business cards usually have their name and title printed in kanji, often with the same in Romaji on the flip side. But once Japanese people start living abroad, what do they do? Both in Singapore and in Vancouver, I would occasionally receive name cards from compatriots, in which the name is only printed in Romaji. In such international cities like Vancouver or LA or New York, there must surely be people—other than reporters for the local Japanese-language newspaper or Chinese people—who might be interested in, say, how Yoko-san or Yuji-san is written in kanji. If the name in kanji is what your parents gave you, you should keep it always, no matter where you happen to be living. That’s my humble opinion.
What about when a Nikkei person goes to work in Japan? Typically one side of the card would be in Romaji/English and the other in Japanese. If the surname and given name are all in katakana (e.g. ?????????, i.e. Michael Nakamura), it might imply that the person is an English-speaking Nikkeijin. If the surname was in kanji (??????), a relatively rare case, it could give the impression that the man is a Japanese-speaking Nikkeijin, or even that he’s a show biz-related person. If a Nikkei person felt so comfortable in Japanese culture and language, and he happened to have a Japanese name as well, the name might read ???, in which case he would be a “masked foreigner” indistinguishable from a Japanese as far as the impression from the name card is concerned.
What’s in a name? The things I’ve mentioned may seem like making a mountain out of a mole hill. It’s only as important as one considers it to be.
In closing, I’d like to share with you what I practice in the way of mnemonics—learning techniques that aid memory. The word comes from Mnemosyne, the daughter or titaness born of Uranus, or god of heaven, and Gaia, mother earth in Greek mythology. It’s equally fascinating that Mnemosyne is the mother by Zeus of the nine muses, who represent epic poetry, history, love poetry, music, tragedy, hymns, dance, comedy and astronomy, respectively.
My simple method, picked up long ago from some magazine interview with a neurologist or something, is to keep thinking about whatever word I want to remember until I make some sort of word association, the more ridiculous, illogical or presposterous the better. The thinking process should take at least 20 seconds or so and maybe up to 30 seconds. The more ridiculous the association, i.e. the more likely the two bits of information involved have never been connected in that way before, the better my chance of remembering the association. If information stored can be simplistically likened to tiny creases on the brain, connecting two of them that have never been connected before should create a brand new crease.
To give an example of the technique when applied to remembering names, for instance, let’s go back to that “Tan something” with regard to Singaporean names. Among my colleagues at that government agency, whose names I needed to memorize as quickly as possible, was a fellow called Tan Suan Swee. The word I right away associated with those three syllables was the Japanese word “tansansui,” meaning soda (carbonated) water. The guy was from the chemical industries division, so I juxtaposed on his somewhat high cheekboned face the image of a soda water bottle. Whenever I had to memorize names and faces, I tried to make it a habit to play such little mental games. What about a name like the aforementioned Michael Nakamura? Both the surname and given name are quite common, but I happened to be a baseball fan going back many years, so I remember a guy called Michael Nakamura used to pitch for the Nippon Ham Fighters. So regardless of whether the person who gave me the said meishi (name card) is young or old, I would picture him in baseball uniform throwing the ball. That’s how it works.
When we get to a certain age level, we all, alas, have to start thinking about keeping our power of memory up. At least it’s easier than keeping your physical strength up, so I hope my small tip in amateur mnemonics was worth reading about.