Practica – What's in a name activity

This is an activity for pulling hidden identity narratives from our names. My goal in this exercise is to help participants share stories of personal and cultural identity as an alternative to traditional dimensional thinking about cultural values and behaviors in the intercultural field, so prone to stereotyping. It is a fresh approach to understanding culture and forming connections across differences in a multicultural context through the discovery of each other by storytelling related to our identity formation. The secondary goal is to offer and demonstrate some simple recipes for conducting and facilitating intercultural storytelling discovery sessions in workplaces, classrooms and organizations and to encourage further development of processes of this kind.

Yesterday's Pedagogica post was an expansion on my personal approach to introducing these exercises. Create your own introduction using your own name(s) and other name stories that you know of about given names, family names, nicknames, naming trends in your own culture, etc. Remember that you are modeling the kind of openness and acceptance that you will be looking for the participants to attempt in the activity.

This activity follows the introduction. I usually allow 20-30 minutes for the discussion part depending on the size and energies of the group. Likewise the debriefing should be a relaxed sharing and not rushed.

Debrief in the plenum by asking participants to share any highlights they wish to in what they shared or what they heard. Ask what impact this kind of sharing may have had on their perception of themselves and others. What did they discover about or even own for the first time about themselves.

Instruct the participants as follows (You may prefer to have these questions posted on flipchart or overhead or printed and distributed to the participants):

Take about 5 minutes to quietly reflect on your name(s). When time is up, I will ask you to form small groups of 3 or 4 persons, in which you can take turns to share as much as you are comfortable with about your name(s). Here are some questions to help you quietly reflect as well as get sharing started in your group:

  • How’d you get your name(s)? What do they mean? What history do they have? What stories did you hear about them?
  • What did your name(s) mean to those who gave them to you? What nicknames have you chosen or been given? Why?
  • How were or are your names regarded culturally in terms of group belonging. To whom do they connect you? When did they put you in an in-group or an out-group?
  • What was their personal, cultural impact on you at various stages of your life? When was it painful, when enriching? Did you change your name for any reason? How? Why?

When the reflection time is up, ask the participants to form their groups and indicate the approximate discussion time. Once or twice check to make sure that the groups are managing time such as to allow each person to have time to share.

Additional Facilitation notes.

Asking participants to explore and tell their name story may be challenging, risky, embarrassing, or just fun. Do not push participants too hard. Tell them that if the topic or any part of it feels too uncomfortable they can:

  • Make sure to chose teammate(s) or even just a partner that they are most comfortable sharing with, or
  • Reflect quietly on their own, e.g., think on the questions along and make notes with paper and pen, in a diary, or on a digital notepad that they may then chose to share or not share about in the debrief of the exercise.

Encourage participants to take the ideas home and work further with them there and to explore and discuss them further with each other or others.

This activity and this process can be applied to the names of groups and organizations as well as individual persons’ names, exploring how group identity is shaped in the naming and promulgation of a group name. While not foolproof, this approach has significant power in addressing conscious and unconscious bias and making more understanding relationships among learners, co-workers, etc.


Immigrant name changes, 

Naming laws around the world summary,

Spanish “two last names”,

Feminism and marital name change,

Generative art developing personal portraiture out of peoples digitized narratives,

Celebrities name a child,

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