What's in a name?

In a previous post, I talked a bit about the struggle to fit into life in Germany without changing too many aspects of myself -- I don't want to change who I fundamentally am just to fit into the culture here, but at the same time, you have to pick and choose your battles.

One of these battles has been fairly personal, however, and it's not one I expected to fight. It's the struggle over who I am. I don't mean this in the deep, symbolic sense. I mean literally the name by which I am called. 

You see, my name is Tori. My full name is Victoria (which is obvious to some and a revelation to others), but I have been called Tori ever since I was a baby. In the U.S., while it's not a terribly common name, it's also not particularly unusual (Tori Spelling and Tori Amos are two vaguely famous people in the U.S. who also share this name). I'm not the only Tori I've met, and I've definitely met more Tori's than Vicki's. The biggest struggle I've had with it in the U.S. is getting people to spell it with an "i" at the end instead of a "y" (there's no "y" in Victoria, people).

In Germany, however, my name is an oddity. It's meaningless to them as a nickname -- the "normal" shortening of Victoria is Viki, they like to remind me, as though I've somehow made a mistake in my choice of nickname and need to be corrected. When Germans pronounce my name for the first time, the two syllables are always dragged out as though they think I just picked two random sounds and strung them together: "Toh" "ree". I also frequently receive emails addressing as "Herr" or "Mister", as most Germans have no idea where my name comes from, and I guess to them it looks like a masculine name. 

I'm obviously not the only foreigner who has moved to Germany and had this problem (and of course, this not a problem that is unique to Germany). In fact, I'm quite lucky that my "real" name is a normal name here (albeit spelled unconventionally, since the German spelling is usually Viktoria). 

But this has caused a sort of personal crisis for me. I can easily switch to using Victoria outside of personal circles and eliminate most confusion. But, I don't particularly want to do that. No one outside of teachers on the first day of school or legal forms calls me Victoria. In the 23 years I lived in the U.S. I exclusively went by Tori, even when working as a professional, and this never caused me any problems or struck people as odd. That I used my nickname in professional settings is particularly strange for Germans -- here, nicknames tend to stay exclusively in family and friend circles. In the workplace, especially when interacting with people from outside your office, you would go by your proper name exclusively. 

So I'm left with an odd dilemma. Do I transition to using Victoria exclusively in my professional life to make things "easier" for those around me? Or do I assert myself and insist that I be called by the name I actually identify with, even if this causes me to look unprofessional or just plain weird to Germans?

Recently, I had an interaction with my boyfriend's extended family that I think really highlights both my struggle getting Germans to accept my name, as well as how differently nicknames are perceived in Germany versus the U.S. Many in his family know my real name is Victoria, but some are still learning it for the first time. When they do, the reaction is usually the same, as it was this most recent time: "Oh, but Victoria is a much nicer name! Why wouldn't you go by that?" That is, his family point-blank told me the name I have been called my entire life is ugly and that I should use a different name instead. Unsurprisingly, I find this sentiment frustrating -- just because something isn't what you're used to doesn't mean it needs to be changed to suit your tastes. 

I do want to make clear that I don't perceive this as a unique problem of Germans. I know people with unusual, foreign-sounding names are confronted with these situations constantly all over the world. Just last week, I was cringing over a podcast where the American moderator mercilessly butchered German names (is pronouncing Jens as "Yens" really so hard?!). Still, part of me does think the bluntness/directness that Germans are known for exacerbates the situation. In my opinion, Americans confronted with an unusual name are unlikely to directly tell the person they think that name is strange or, even worse, not a "real" name. Politeness and indirectness is far too prized in our culture for that to be commonplace. Germans, meanwhile, seem to have no qualms telling people to their face that their names somehow don't count or that they're not real. In addition to the story I shared above about my boyfriend's extended family, a Twitter friend (@mollyclare) shared with me her experience being introduced as Molly to older Germans, only to be confronted multiple times with a response of, "Das ist doch kein Name, oder?" ("That's not really a name, right?") Regardless of your cultural background, I think that is at the very least a decidedly impolite response.

But after this most recent interaction with my boyfriend's family, we entered a conversation comparing nicknames in German and American culture. I talked about how it's very normal in American schools that on the first day of school as the teacher calls out the attendance list, students can indicate what name they would prefer to be called, and the teacher will write that down and use it. Unless it's obviously not a nickname the parents would approve of, the teacher usually has no problem going with that. This dynamic does not exist at all in German schools, however. Teachers generally exclusively use students' real names regardless of what the students prefer, setting the stage for a general avoidance of nicknames in professional settings.  

However, what really blew the Germans' minds was a brilliant example my boyfriend came up with: he asked his family members if they knew that Bill Clinton's real name is not Bill. They were confused -- what do you mean, what other name could he possibly have, they wondered? My boyfriend informed them that is real name was William, and this was shocking for them. An American president held office using a nickname? Yes, we do things quite differently in the U.S.

I don't have a resolution for this, though I'm trying to find the balance. I have started using Victoria more often when it's to my advantage -- for example, when leaving a name for a food order or table reservations, it's certainly easier to give a name I don't have to repeat or spell. And at work, I recently changed my e-mail signature to Victoria Dykes. I've started thinking of my nickname a bit like the German Du and Sie, the formal and informal You -- when I first introduce myself to someone, perhaps I say Victoria, but after we've had a couple interactions, I try to switch to Tori. To me that feels like a more reasonable compromise.

Maybe to some it seems like I'm taking all of this too seriously, but it's important to me that integration into another culture be two-way street. I think I offer a lot to Germans through my fluency in the German language and my interest, involvement, and enthusiasm for its culture and politics. I'm making what I think is a very sincere effort to integrate and be part of German society -- surely the least they could do is call me by my actual name?

Tori Dykes