Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice, Number 7 (January 2016)

Enjoy reading our selection:

What’s in a word?  How cultural identity narratives are hidden in our language

George Simons

ETAS Journal, Volume 33 Number 1 (Winter 2015), pp. 29-30

‘My Name is George’ is the name of a Swiss band. How did they come by that name?

George Simons is not an English teacher, but a specialist in intercultural communication and global team management.  However, we teachers can benefit from his ideas and experience. 

The goal of his paper is to promote a fresh approach to understanding culture and intercultural identity by the simple means of sharing personal stories. His suggestions and activities to help readers and learners share stories appeal by their simplicity and flexibility. We can communicate more effectively by “forming connections across differences” (p. 29).

He suggests starting with reflecting on our names (also family names, nicknames, and so on): their origin and connotation. He provides detailed notes and instructions to show how this activity can be used. Everyone has at least one name; what easier way of providing a neutral, personalised activity to suit any level as an ice-breaker, introduction to a variety of topics, or as a way of integrating a new classmate? Talking about your name is a relatively non-threatening activity, which is not reliant on general or specialised knowledge. I would suggest that the teacher leads the way in sharing, a tactic which a coach such as Dr Simons might be less likely to employ. I once had a student whose first and family names were the same, and I could imagine sharing that and eliciting reactions from the class. I might be less likely to do such an activity with that student himself unless I knew him quite well and could reasonably predict his reaction.

An extension idea could be to use it to introduce a lesson on branding in a business class, for example. Further extension activities are provided and I particularly liked the ‘attractions and avoidances’ activity, which could generate a follow-up lesson on euphemisms and/or functional language.

The author also provides a list of websites in his References which could also generate further ideas to explore.

In short, this article will provide you with instant lesson plans for just about any student or class you have – what more could we ask for?  Thank you, George!

Helena Lustenberger

Book Reviews Editor, ETAS Journal


What’s in a word? How cultural identity narratives are hidden our language

George Simons

The goal of this paper is to help readers 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 through the discovery of each other by storytelling related to our identity formation.


What is in a word? Let’s start with our names. Where do they come from, what do they mean? Everybody has a name. In some cultures names are chosen in anticipation of a child’s birth; in some other cultures a name is not decided upon until later in the child’s life. No matter what, a person’s name leaves a permanent imprint of cultural identity. Sharing stories of personal and cultural identity can be an important part of training people in effective communication, to form connections across differences.

My name is George, ‘Earth Worker’ or, simply, ‘Farmer’ in classical Greek. It was my father’s name. He was named after his uncle, so it has strong connections in the family. I never really had a nickname, though there was an embarrassing rhyme in my childhood, which ran: “Georgie Porgy, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry…” In high school German class I was called ‘Ge’, short for Georg in German, but as it sounded like ‘gay’, which was then fast becoming the popular term for homosexual, it quickly disappeared.

Heidi was a recent intern of mine, a Finnish woman named so because her pregnant mother was reading the story by Johanna Spyri. My next intern’s Vietnamese name was Kim (Gold) Ngan (Silver) Dau (Bean).

Statistically, it seems that Mohammed is the world’s most common given name for men, with the connotations of religious belonging to an Islamic tradition. Names in some Western countries are assigned using the Saint on whose calendar day one was born. Culturally, your name could even get you into a much more thorough and troublesome search by airport security in many places.

No one is immune from being named, so looking at family names as well as given names may be a useful starting point for exploring one’s cultural identity narrative. Family names can be fraught with meaning, context, history, and cultural priorities. And can be even more telling in our identity narrative than our given names, bestowing dignity or opprobrium on their possessors, either because of their direct meaning or what they sound like. Celebrities choose market-value laden monikers. Nguyen is a very common family name resonating nobility in Vietnam. Black slaves, who had only first names, when freed, often adopted what sounded like patriotic, dignified US family names, like those of the founding fathers and early presidents of the Republic, such as Washington, Franklin, and Madison.

Family names may also indicate:

  • a place of origin or roots (van den Berg, Newton, de la Fuente, Romano).
  • descendancy, e.g., patronymics (Bjornsdotter, Simonovičs, Ivanova, Johnson, Fitzpatrick, O’Brien, etc.). In Spanish cultures a child may bear both parents’ apellidos, e.g. Inés Jimenez-Llorente (the name of my professional Spanish language translator).
  • marriage into a family on the part of a woman adopting husband’s family name.
  • profession or occupational class: Schmidt(Metal Worker), Wainwright(Wagon Builder),Holzhauer(Woodcutter – this was my grandmother’s maiden name, which she sometimes upclassed by pronouncing it as ‘Hohenzollern’).

Activity: What’s in your NAME?

Take about five minutes to get participants to quietly reflect on their name(s). When time is up, form small groups of three to four people, in which they can take turns to share as much as they are comfortable with about their name(s).

Here are some questions to help participants quietly reflect as well as get sharing started in the group:

  • How’d you get your name(s)? What do they mean? What history do they have?
  • What did they mean to those who gave them to you? What nicknames have you got, why?
  • How were or are your names regarded culturally in terms of group belonging? 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 painful, when enriching? Did you change your name for any reason? How? Why?

Facilitation notes

Asking participants in this activity 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:

  • choose teammate(s) or 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 choose to share or not share about in the debrief of the exercise.

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 learn for the first time about themselves.

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

This process can be applied to the names of groups and organisations as well as individual person's names, exploring how group identity is shaped in the naming and promulgation of a group name.

Other narrative-releasing activities

Here are some other similar sharing activities you may use to explore the shaping of cultural and personal identity narratives by asking participants the questions related to them and encouraging their discussion in pairs or small groups, as in the name exercise:

a. Stories, fables and songs

As a preschooler, what stories were you told? What songs sung?

Who told them to you or sung them to you?

What was read to you? By whom?

What do you remember of them? Of the storytellers or singers?

What did they tell you about who you are and how you should be?

How did their cadences and rhythms and sounds become part of you?

b. Play and sport

What games did you play growing up?

How did you adapt to them, learn them, succeed at them?

What stories lie behind them? What heroes?

What messages about life did they teach you?

How did they contribute to your story of who you are?

What was their personal, gender, cultural impact on you?

What traces of them are in your emotions, your muscle memory?

c. Attractions and avoidances

What did you learn were the ‘good things’ and ‘bad things’ and the stories behind them?

What were the “good places” and ‘bad places’ and the stories behind them?

What characteristics in people and what kinds of people were you taught to look for or avoid?

Where in your family and world did you learn to belong?

Who were your ‘We’ constellations? Who were the ‘They’ groups?

Who were the good guys and bad guys? How did they look?

What stories were told to teach you to recognise these things and people, and how to react to them?

Related references

Feminism and marital name change. Retrieved from

Generative art developing personal portraiture out of peoples’ digitized narratives. Retrieved from

Immigrant name changes. Retrieved from  

Naming laws around the world summary. Retrieved from

Spanish ‘two last names’. Retrieved from

Troublesome names: A Boy Named Sue, song by Johnny Cash. Retrieved from

About the Author

Owner of George Simons International, a virtual consulting network specializing in intercultural communication and global team management, Dr. George F. Simons created the award-winning diversophy® games for developing intercultural competence in training rooms, for e-learning, and other technologies ( With Walt Hopkins he has recently co-authored The Bucket Book: 7 Ways to Lighten Your Life Before You Kick the Bucket and written Summersong, a book of culturally dynamic poetry. He is a co-author of eight Cultural Detective® intercultural guides. His books, articles, reviews, and other writings are listed at As a member of the governing Board of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training, and Research (SIETAR) in France, he works at enhancing the interculturalist’s role by developing professional standards and effective networks for its membership. He lives in Mandelieu la Napoule, France.