What To Do When You Hate Your Nickname

Artwork by Anna Jay
My friends and I were settled around our restaurant table, bottle of wine in front of us, when I seized my moment. “I’ve got something I need to tell you,” I said. “I don’t want you to call me Frannie any more.” There was a baffled silence as they tried to dart surreptitious glances at each other across the table. I smiled hopefully, trying not to crumble under the weight of the awkwardness. It wasn’t as though I was asking them to call me Rainbow Sparkletits or Captain Thrashwolf. I just wanted them to use my name, my actual name, the name my parents gave me and that I’d been using since I first mastered fricatives. My name isn’t Frannie, it’s Franki. Actually, it’s Francesca but I’ve been Franki (I dropped the ‘e’ aged 13 because I thought it looked cooler) for as long as I can remember. But at the age of about 17 my good friend Liz and I started calling each other “Frannie” and “Betty” as an inside joke. Our other friends caught on and for a while it was vaguely amusing. Until it wasn’t. We got older, went off to university, and started to shape ourselves into the adults we saw ourselves becoming. “Betty” was dropped but for some reason “Frannie” endured. And so did her power to make my blood boil. The dumpy, cotton wool-stuffed 'n's in the middle coupled with the girlish, whining “eee” at the end. The very sound of it sets my nostrils aflare. My only comfort is that I am not alone in my extreme reaction. Twilight star Robert Pattinson hates the nickname “R-Patz” to the point of violence. “I don't understand who invented that thing, 'R-Patz'. I want to strangle them,” he told The Guardian in 2012. I hear you, Rob! I am with you! And so is Madonna. The Queen of Pop told US chat show host David Letterman that one of the reasons she left the UK was because she was sick of people calling her “Madge”. But I think it was Scarlett Johansson who said it best. Of her media abbreviation “ScarJo”, she said: “It's lazy and flippant. [...] There's something insulting about it.”

Most people want to create their own identities rather than be defined by others

She’s absolutely right. Irene Levine, professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and founder of The Friendship Blog, explained that it can feel like a deliberate affront to be called by a name we dislike. “Most people want to create their own identities rather than be defined by others,” she said. “Our names are so basic to our sense of self that it feels discordant – and disrespectful – when someone uses a nickname rather than the name we want them to use.” Louisa is 31 and a TV producer but at school she was known as “Fitz”, a derivative of her surname. However, as time went on, she realised it didn’t chime with how she felt about herself. “When I left school I started to divorce myself from it ,” she said. “By the time I was at university I was definitely Lou and when I got my first job in television, I started using Louisa. Looking back, it’s clear that this was symbolic of where I was in my life. I had found a career that was working for me, I had a great group of friends, and I was beginning to build confidence in myself. 'Fitz' wasn't that girl. She was insecure and bullied.” Louisa asked her friends to stop using the old nickname and, happily, they complied. But not everyone is as sympathetic, as I know only too well. Like me, Chuck, a 23-year-old art student, has “Francesca” printed on her birth certificate but has never used it… until she started a new job. “My family have called me Chuck since I was born. It’s how I introduce myself, it’s what my tutors and friends call me. But my new manager refused. She told me she didn’t think it was professional enough and she insisted on having ‘Francesca’ printed on my name badge.”

If you have already told someone you don't want to be addressed in that way and have done it repeatedly, it can feel like the person is purposely trying to antagonise you

Jai, 37, and a media and communications creative also goes by her nickname and described a similar experience. “A few months back, I worked for a client who would not call me Jai even though I and several colleagues insisted on more than one occasion. In the end I decided she was being deliberately rude.” Dr Levine agrees. “If you have already told someone you don't want to be addressed in that way and have done it repeatedly, it can feel like the person is purposely trying to antagonise you,” she said. “It may, in fact, be passive aggressive.” It isn’t just hurt feelings we have to worry about. Kate Smith, 36, who works in PR, described it as “highly embarrassing” when friends introduce her by her university nickname, “Smithers”. “One friend is a big talent agent and I have been introduced to so many famous people as Smithers,” she said. “I keep trying to tell my friends to keep it in the inner circle. It brings up images of Smithers from The Simpsons! What to do? How long will the name stick? Will I be an OAP called Smithers?” Nicole Zangara, author of Surviving Female Friendships, suggests a direct approach. “Sit your friends down and tell them their friendship means a lot to you. Ask them if they could explain why they still use it. Then explain to them why it bothers or hurts you,” she said. “If it were me and a friend asked me to stop calling her a nickname, I'd stop. Simple as that. If they're that stubborn about stopping, I'd really question the friendship.” And indeed, that was where I had found myself. Twelve years on from the birth of “Frannie”, here we were, a group of adult women sitting in awkward silence around a table in Wahaca. “Look,” I said, steeling myself. “I’m really serious about this. In fact, if you don’t stop calling me that… well, I won’t invite you to the wedding.” If my friends were incredulous before, it was nothing compared to the expressions on their faces now. I was telling them to stop calling me by my nickname before I'd even shared the news of my engagement. What can I say? That's how serious I am about it. Madonna would understand.

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