Fresh Frosh: the social unacceptability of a hyphenated last name

    Photo by Daniel Schuleman / North by Northwestern.

    Eighteen years and three months ago, an incompatible marriage occurred: that of my two last names. A seven letter German and a nine letter Norwegian were forcefully joined on a 4 ½ X 10 legal birth certificate by a tiny, yet crucial dash. The reception has not been entirely jovial.

    I see a universal expression of confusion in the face of everyone who must reproduce my name in written or spoken form. I see it in the face of the security guard who can’t decide which name to use when he signs me in to Allison at night. As he twists my WildCARD, I watch him opt for the shorter name, the easier one to write. I hear it in the bank teller’s tone when she asks, trying not to offend, “can you spell that for me?” I see it in a professional setting when I’m asked for my last name in order to be addressed formally. I’ll see my interviewer’s eyebrows raise when she struggles to find a way to make “Ms. Glazier-Torgerson” sound fluid and legitimate.

    Having to frequently correct the spelling and pronunciation of my name has made me much less patient in communicating with people who have good intentions but bad execution. A couple weeks ago when signing up to get scammed for a $50 spa treatment (freshman mistake), the man taking my information wrote the hyphen in my name as an apostrophe. I became so short with him that he playfully hit my shoulder and told me to “lighten up.” How did I become so pathetic?

    My name and Northwestern are mildly incompatible, as one would expect. Although, much to my surprise, my welcome packet and nameplate on my door included correct spellings, that honeymoon soon ended.

    The activities fair was a stress for everyone, but the headache for the students with the email address that take thirty seconds to scribe throbbed a bit harder. When the fair ended and the small part of my brain that hadn’t been suffocated by the pounding musical demonstrations and overly intellectual introductions to organizations looked forward to new meetings, it slowly wasted away as the listserv emails did not arrive. The exclusion of the student whose name was mistyped. 

    Then came the day for me to pick up a package from the mailroom. Everyone has their complaints, but the hyphen in a name acts as a multiplication symbol: they make the experience of those who have them several times worse. I understand that the repetitive sorting and filing that accompanies working in a mailroom must be draining. Such monotonous work must at times feel like a lobotomy procedure. So, I gave the mailroom a bit of slack when it took an extra couple days to locate my package due to it being sorted under the wrong last name. But, when my first name was listed as my second last name and I had trouble signing out my package because of this misinterpretation, I felt like I had the appropriate rationale to get annoyed. Are hyphenated last names that rare that the training doesn’t include their sorting? What underrepresentation!

    Introductions over Welcome Week brought a sense of anxiety while anticipating the variation of my name’s pronunciation. I have my favorites memorized, but generally they are all uncomfortable expressions of how tense people become when they realize they may embarrass themselves. Generally, they preface the attempt with a slight laugh or chuckle, combined with the overstated comment, “that’s a long name!” And then they slowly enunciate the first half of the word, only to speedily slur the second half, an admittance of failure. I learned to accept my pathetic eagerness for when someone correctly pronounces my name. That’s how you know you’ve found a future best friend.

    Many people who I met that first week were curious about the origins of my name, which turned into probing into my family history. The questions began as innocent, with inquiries into which name belongs to which parent, what the ethnic origins are behind each, and whether the name has any analytical significance. I’ve always been happy to respond to those questions, although my answers never deviate much from what I’d call dull. I doubt the derivation of Torgerson as “son of Torger” fascinates many. The conversation then often went in two different directions, if it developed further at all: a condemnation of my family’s deviation from social norms, and the empowering reasons behind the decision to hyphenate.

    It is fairly clear that my mother’s maiden name is included in my last name. When this is confirmed through conversation, they also learn that my mom never changed her name at marriage. Although it is becoming more socially acceptable for a woman to keep her maiden name, among the socially conservative this is often not acceptable. When differing social beliefs become apparent, the conversation gets interesting. During Welcome Week, I had an encounter in this category. What started as an innocent introduction became awkward when the person I had just met gave an exaggerated gasp at the idea of my mother keeping her own last name. At that point, frustrated with the lack of respect, I decide to further shock my audience with the scandalous concept that my parents weren’t even married until I was four months old. Of course, there’s more to my creation story than that, but the revenge of seeing a nosy face turn inwards, awkwardly paralyzed trying to restrain their bold opinions, cannot be denied. It can be easy to make a few enemies.

    I love when people have a genuine interest in my personal background. The conversations that fall in the former category are the most interesting, and the most significant in forming new relationships. In these conversations, I explain that my hyphenated last name was the result of my mom’s own decision regarding her last name: to not change it at marriage. As far as I know, my mom always intended to keep her name. Not married until her 40s, I would assume that my mom would be uncomfortable with such an identity change at that point in her life. As an adult during the third wave of feminism, I can also imagine that the importance of modern women’s rights would have been fresher in her head than those of later generations. Agreeing that each person was of equal importance in my creation, my parents decided to acknowledge both in the name of their child. Additionally, having such a last name also was to remind me of my unchanging identity; I would always know about the distinct background from which I come. In that sense, I feel grateful for such a gift.

    Unfortunately, my last name also presents a dilemma related to what I will do when I marry someday. Unaware that the issue sparks a serious internal debate for me, people ask with excitement what I will do with my name when I get married, hoping that I will further isolate myself from social norms and add a second hyphen, or create a new name, or, better yet, come up with a unique symbol to represent its eccentric nature. But, realistically, I have two options. I can take my husband’s new name and reject the enjoyment of being unique and the stress of individualism my parents engrained in me, or keep a variation of the hyphen and overwhelmingly recognize three generations in one name. Indecisive as I am, this will probably prohibit me from marrying until my mid 40s. But by that time, the only singletons will be the hyphenated ones, also painfully debating the future of their names. With this ease among hyphenated people to find others who can relate, they will marry and, out of the history of their shared experience, will pass the hyphen on into the next generation.

    Maybe that proliferation would make the world a more hyphen-acceptable place.


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