I have always fantasized about dating a woman named Joanna or Karla. I imagine them to be sensible but spontaneous, thoughtful without being dramatic, and obviously good looking. I have nothing to base any of these conclusions on. They are just beautiful names and I can’t imagine any Karla or Joanna being anyway else. I am also confident that never has a Joanna or Karla ever dreamed of being with a conceptual Robert. I’m probably right.
According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my name is just not sexy.
In 2004, these researchers determined that the sexes assess names as being either appealing or unappealing based upon certain factors. Most interestingly, names are subconsciously appealing based on how important the first vowel is to vocalizing them.
A two-syllable name can be stressed in the front or the back end. For men, sexy names were stressed in the front. For women, sexy names were in the back. Matthew is stressed at front and is perceived as sexy. Which might explains Matthew McConaughey’s enduring cinematic career.
The consequences for the rest of us? Well, sorry, Nina. Sorry, Judy. Feel free to join me and my friends Cindy and Paul in the club of kids jealous of our fre-name-ies with names like Craig and Sofia. If only we’d have gone to high school together, unsexy namers. We could have all sat and enjoyed our anti-prom, enlightened discussions on amine, and simply settled on gross first kisses with our unsexy selves.
This study came to my mind a few weeks ago. I was at a packed club in Chinatown, New York. For reasons I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could explain, I was undergoing the essential act of greeting all the men near the section I was standing (VIP. Holla.) In such a high-energy, sexualized environment, all male egos have to be neutralized by demonstrating to each other a spirit of respect and good faith.
Anyway, everyone was super friendly and I found myself talking to a pleasant, dark haired, Italian-looking gentleman. He told me his name, which I forgot, and then I told him my name. He leaned closer toward me, and almost as if he was making a confession, told me that he, too, was named Robert. He had told me his middle name; which he explained was the name that he went by as an adult. A soberness tainted his voice. It was if he was either ashamed to have abandoned the fraternity of Roberts or felt bad I had to be stuck with it. Either way I laughed and our interaction got me thinking.
Despite the feeling that everyone has an uncle Robert somewhere in their family tree, it isn’t a name I encounter often. Whenever I do, it often comes with a twist: Rob. Bob. Bobby. Robbie. Whatever. Somewhere, I missed the memo that Roberts aren’t supposed to stay Roberts. And then it gets worse.
I was cursed with potentially the most unsexy name since Frasier Crane. Robert Oswald Wohner. Three names. Three long Os. Together, it is a cacophony that celebrates a love for Mets baseball, unintended abstinence, and a permanent residence in the Friendzone.
This former Robert at the club had abandoned the life that could have been destined for him. He now was handsome enough to look like a member of One Direction and friendly enough to share details about himself with strangers. In every way, he was a cool person. He knew he deserved better than what his birth name would have demanded.
Yet I am that Robert, a name worthy of leading the Confederacy but dateless at prom; ready to be quarterback of the Washington Redskins or play your favorite Hufflepuffian vampire but never scribbled inside marble notebooks, adorned by hearts and kisses. It’s sobering.
I’m not alone. What transforms an Elizabeth into a Beth or Liz? A Zachary to a Zac? A Joshua to a Josh? Can we escape the limitations are names set for us? Do such limitations exist at all?
Growing up, I fully felt like a Robert, partially because my brother was named Ivan. Our names suited each our personalities. He was in every way an Ivan: master baker, computer programmer, songwriter, relationship therapist, thesbian, academic. I was Robert, the loner who played LEGO Racers on our home computer. In a way, his Ivan-ness illuminated my Robert-ness. And like most shy kids, you simply grow up conceding the family spotlight. I don’t know what would have changed if our names were reversed, but I don’t worry about that anymore.
For me, maturing involved determining the unintended influences on my life and reevaluating which would continue to define my thinking, values, and personality. A name is just a piece of the puzzle. So while I don’t love being Robert, I like being myself. And my name is a part of that. I do think there is something to our names sharping how we see ourselves. But the legacy is just one part of accepting our pasts in order to dictate our futures.
That night in Chinatown was everything I hope a Saturday night to be. I didn’t pay for my alcohol. The DJ played “Wild Ones.” In that space, being Robert only mattered as much as I let it matter. Which isn’t to say I suddenly assumed my suave alter ego, Roberto. I didn’t. Watching me dance makes it gloriously obvious that, Robert or no Robert, I can do unsexy all by myself.