What’s in a nickname? Would that whom we call “Edmund” by another name like “Eddie” still seem as competent? This came up during a conversation between my co-blogger Meg and me when I realized that we take two different stances on the issue. Meg consistently refers to herself as “Meg” in most situations, personal and professional, and rarely uses “Margaret”, her formal legal name. On the other hand, while I always introduce myself in person as “Bill”, I habitually use my formal name “William” in many professional contexts – on my resume, on my business cards, in most correspondence.
Meg is comfortable being “Meg” everywhere. The uniformity is simpler. Besides, she takes as an example Meg Whitman, head of Hewlett-Packard and one of the most successful business executives in the U.S. “Meg” is plain and appealing, without infantilizing the way that at nickname like “Margie” might. While the latter runs a greater risk of implying either informality or immaturity, I think that Meg’s extremely professional persona is enough to forestall those implications arising from “Meg”.
On the other hand, I use “William” instead of “Bill” in my professional life out of concern for precisely those perceptions. I almost never go by “William” in conversation, even at work, but I am always a little nervous that “Bill” doesn’t carry the same kind of authority. I feel like it’s something you’d see stitched on an appliance repairman’s uniform, not an office door nameplate. I have noticed that a lot of famous people who, like me, go by “Bill” personally, use “William” professionally, like William Holden, William Colby, and William Shatner. Bill Gates is a famous exception, but of course when he started his career he was trying to come across as the maverick nerdy pioneer. Then there’s Bill Clinton, who built his political career on making connections with people. Using “Bill” has been a way for Clinton to make himself seem more approachable. Conversely, I make a point of introducing myself to my students as “Professor William MacDonald”, on the assumption that the title/formal name combo will promote a more formal teacher/student relationship. To some extent, then, choosing between a formal name and a nickname is means by which you can modulate decorum.
Bill Cosby, however, highlights another issue particular to people not in the alpha power group. Nicknames can provide a subtle way of undercutting oneself, of trying not to appear too uppity. Would a Black comic in the 1960s have been as welcomed into America’s living rooms if he’d been introduced as “William Cosby”? And note that eventually, when he was listed in TV credits, he would choose to appear as “Bill Cosby” when credited as an actor but “Dr. William H. Cosby, Jr.” when credited as a writer or consultant. Perhaps Meg Whitman originally went by “Meg” as a way of making herself seem less threatening to a male-dominated power structure. (Would Meg Ryan have become “American’s Sweetheart” if she had been billed as “Margaret Ryan”?) While that may have turned out to have been a canny way to position herself, note that she also ran the risk of not being taken as seriously as she might have been as “Margaret”.
There’s no one right choice, especially nowadays when you see a lot of people whose legal names are what would have traditionally been considered nicknames. I think I could switch my resume and business cards to “Bill” now with no significant ramifications. But I am also a rather formal person in the workplace; for example, I address most people as “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Jones” until they invite me to use their first names, which is kind of old school. Introducing myself as “William” thus seems appropriately formal to me. Every person I meet professionally knows me first as the earnest William before getting to know me as the happy, fun Bill, and I like that. In the end, as long as one consciously chooses when and whether to use one’s formal name or one’s nickname, with full awareness of the subtle effects of the choice, the most important consideration is what you are comfortable with.