What are "unusual characters"

The world is a complex place. It is tempting to enforce simplicity upon it to make things easier for computers. Gender is a boolean, no one is older than 99, all text flows left to right, and names are always in English. That makes it nice and easy for us to write computer systems - and who cares if it is dehumanising?

Recently, I tried to register with phone company EE. When someone asks for my first name, I usually just give my initial. But this box wasn't having any of my nonsense. It demanded two characters - and no "unusual" characters.

Screenshot of a form validation error - Your first name must have at least two letters and no unusual characters.

What are unusual characters?

About 16% of the world use "Chinese" characters (it's more complicated than that).

Screenshot of a webpage asking for a First Name. It is filled in with Chinese characters. The error message says "Your first name must have at least two letters and no unusual characters."

In the UK, where I am, it is pretty normal to find people with fancy European diacritics.

The error message displayed next to the name François - with a cidilla on the letter C.

It's the banality of the bigotry which gets to me. Usual. Normal. Standard. They're just dull ways for dull people with limited imaginations to dehumanise other people. The people who designed this form probably didn't think of themselves as racist. They just designed, built, or perpetuated a system which was exclusionary.

Language matters. We're a decade on from "Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names" - so ignorance is no excuse. And telling people that their names are abnormal is rude.

The form itself doesn't actually do a good job of validating names. It quite happily allowed me to register with my name consisting of two apostrophes.
A green tick next to two apostrophes.

Basically, if your form can't register Beyoncé - it has failed.

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9 thoughts on “What are "unusual characters"”

  1. Merton Hale says:

    Love it, just love it! I’m the most tech savy person in our household so for some reason i get blamed for all the crappy programming out there.
    I just tell them; it is crap programming, there is no need for the stupid thing you run across.
    I live in Belgium. Frequently on USA sites they want a phone number to create an account. BUT they cannot handle an international phone number. I just give them a USA phone number that I know used to be good.
    And entering postal addresses!!

  2. Jeremy GH says:

    The other issue is over insisting that 'first name' must have at least two characters: while (late US president) Harry S Truman is ok, as they're not after middle name, (late UN Secretary General) U Thant would not be so lucky (yes, both had one letter names...)

  3. said on twitter.com:

    This sort of thing annoys me so much. I work in edtech. the students are mainly intnl students. So many platforms require first name and last name and use some variation on latin1. On systems 'designed' for intnl student education. Name stupidity is so frustrating.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on twitter.com
  4. said on twitter.com:

    And becuase of this idiocy the chinese student uses their 'English name', the Spanish speaker uses their first 'first name' and their final "surname' which is fine, until you need to cross reference the data with something else and someone gets their visa revoked.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on twitter.com
  5. says:

    I run up against this shit a couple of times a month, because my surname is only a single character. Web forms will routinely insist that I enter my full, legally-recognised surname... even though I already have. It'd be so simple to make these warnings an "are you sure you've entered that right?", like some systems do when you enter an email address with an unusual TLD. But instead I have to lie about my name in order to complete the form (if I'm lucky I get to just append an apostrophe).

    And it has knock-on effects. If I'm forced to lie about my name in order to fill in an application for a credit card... the name won't match the name on my file with credit reference agencies and so my credit check will fail (this happened last month, for example).

    It can be worked-around: I've learned that when somebody's going to do an identity or credit check that I need to contact them after I lie on their form to ask them to put a human into the process. But it'd be so much simpler if developers trusted that I know what my name is supposed to look like better than they do.


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