Honouring names

07 December, 2020

Continually mispronouncing a co-worker’s name is thoughtless at best - and malicious at worst. Let’s strive to do better.

Since Kamala Harris rose to global prominence earlier this year, I’ve been thinking about the issue of names being mispronounced. Harris’ first name, a symbol of her Indian heritage, has been frequently mangled by news anchors and fellow politicians, especially her opponents. Some genuinely don’t know the right way to say it; others simply don’t care. When Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson was corrected on his pronunciation by a guest, he responded by saying: “So what?”

Yesterday, I read a news item that the Yorkshire English county cricket side called Indian batsman Cheteshwar Pujara Steve because they could not pronounce his name. Supposedly, they also called every person of colour “Steve”.

You might ask – what’s in a name? As it turns out, plenty. Names are closely linked with our identity and sense of self. They represent our family, community and history. Since they indicate things like ethnicity, religion and gender, names can also trigger unconscious bias. This may influence how we’re treated as well as the opportunities that come our way – for better or worse. To put it simply, names are a core part of who we are.

So, this week, my message is about why pronouncing people’s names correctly is important, especially in the workplace. How can you become better at learning unfamiliar names? And if your name is being mispronounced by colleagues, what steps can you take to correct them?

The refusal to say someone’s name correctly despite knowing better signals disrespect towards the person. Often, it arises from the belief that certain cultural groups are alien, inferior and don’t deserve a place in the mainstream.

Getting someone’s name wrong when you first meet them is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s what you do afterwards that counts. Do you make an effort to get it right, or do you dig in your heels? The refusal to say someone’s name correctly despite knowing better signals disrespect towards the person. Often, it arises from the belief that certain cultural groups are alien, inferior and don’t deserve a place in the mainstream. Here, mispronunciation becomes a form of “othering”.

In the US, this has been well documented with people of colour as well as foreign immigrants. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, is another Indian-American whose name is routinely mispronounced. Even former president Barack Hussein Obama was targeted for his moniker, which was used to paint him as un-American and ineligible for office. This trend is found not just in America but around the world. Closer home, we may see it apply to people from under-represented ethnic or regional groups.

Name-related microaggressions

At the workplace, ongoing mispronunciation can function as a microaggression – a way of making certain team members feel like they don’t belong. In her article for the Harvard Business Review, diversity & inclusion expert Ruchika Tulshyan notes: 

Learning to pronounce a colleague’s name correctly is not just a common courtesy but it’s an important effort in creating an inclusive workplace, one that emphasizes psychological safety and belonging.

Tulshyan, whose name was widely mispronounced by co-workers in Singapore and the west, explains how this affected her personally: 

For years, I let it slide. I didn’t want to make things awkward in a professional setting, plus I had reasoned that it didn’t matter anyway. The work at hand was more important than how my name was said, I told myself. 

Unfortunately, it did start to impact me, from the internal cringe and visible wince when my name was mispronounced, to wondering if my contributions were valued at all if people couldn’t take a moment to correctly learn my name. Worst of all, I agonized over how to correct the situation when someone introduced me to a third party with the wrong pronunciation, and soon, an entire team of people were saying my name incorrectly.

The impact of mispronunciation at the workplace is still largely anecdotal, but there has been research among students. One American study showed that when high school students of colour had their names mispronounced, it created cultural shame and dissociation, harmed their social wellbeing and ultimately impaired their ability to learn.

Pronouncing new names correctly

As workplaces become increasingly diverse, all of us are going to encounter unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce names. It’s perfectly natural to fumble and stumble at first – just make sure you follow that up with an effort to get it right.

Here are seven suggestions to become a better name-pronouncer:

1. Ask, listen, practice.

If you’re struggling with someone’s name or have already gotten it wrong once, simply ask the person how to pronounce it. Don’t soldier on: you’ll end up mangling the name further and become even more embarrassed. Listen attentively, then repeat it back a couple of times to check if you’re saying it correctly.

If you’re going to be interacting with the person often, it’s worth jotting down a quick phonetic note on the back of their business card or on your phone. This way, you can practice later, or at least consult the note before your next meeting. Another trick is to listen carefully when they introduce themselves to someone else – this helps reinforce the pronunciation in your mind.

2. Don’t dwell on it.

In the HBR article mentioned above, Tulshyan advises not making a big fuss over names that are new to you: 

Don’t spend a long time talking about how unfamiliar you are with their name. I feel more excluded when people try to justify their inability to pronounce it (“I’ve just never heard that name before and I didn’t want to butcher it.”), when they launch into a longer conversation about my heritage (“Where is that name from? Where do you come from?”) or when they talk about their own awkwardness (“I’m so embarrassed I didn’t know how to pronounce that.”).

3. Go ahead and clarify.

If you’ve forgotten how to pronounce someone’s name at your second or third meeting, you may be too embarrassed to ask again. Even worse, you might realise you’ve been saying a co-worker’s name wrong for months! Either way, it’s better to bite the bullet and seek clarification right away. The awkwardness will be momentary, and the other person will appreciate the effort because it shows that you care.

You could say something like, “I know I’ve asked you before, but I think I’m still getting your name wrong. Could you repeat it for me, please?” If you’ve been mispronouncing their name for a long time, it would be gracious to include an apology, such as: “I realised I’ve been saying your name wrong for ages – I’m so sorry.

4. Ask in advance.

If you’re going to say a co-worker’s name for the first time in a public setting, like an award ceremony or panel discussion, check the pronunciation with them in advance and be sure to practice. Several students and employees have shared how their moment of achievement was spoiled because of their name being mispronounced.

5. Don’t assign a nickname.

Don’t start calling your co-worker by a nickname just because their real name is “too difficult” – unless you’re given permission. Senior leader Mita Mallick recalls how in the early days of her career, when she still went by Madhumita, she was nicknamed Mohammed by her manager: 

One of the biggest microaggressions that can take place is the repeated mispronunciation of someone’s name. Or in my case, completely changing someone’s name. When my boss created this new nickname for me, that served as a form of bullying and harassment.

6. Consult the Internet.

If all else fails, there are now websites that offer guidance around pronouncing names correctly. Even LinkedIn has introduced a feature to address the issue: visit the person’s profile to check if they’ve added an audio recording of their name.

7. Be an ally.

If you hear someone getting a co-worker’s name wrong, correct them gently: “I think it’s said like this…”. This will help take some of the burden of correction off your colleague, especially if they have an unusual name.

Reclaiming your name

If your name is often mispronounced by co-workers, you may be embarrassed about correcting them or feel that they’ll never get it right. If so, remember these wise words by actress Uzo Aduba’s mother: 

If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.

Here are three strategies to get people to stop mispronouncing your name:

1. Pre-empt mistakes.

Get ahead of common errors by addressing them when you introduce yourself. You could offer some kind of a tool to help people. For example, Julia from Spain might say: 

Hi, I’m Julia. I’m from Spain, so you say it with a little H in front: HOO-lia.

Kamala Harris, meanwhile, offers American voters a slightly anglicized pronunciation of her name: 

People ask me how to pronounce it. There are many ways. If you were asking my grandmother, she’d say ‘come-lah.’ I usually help people pronounce it by saying, “Well, just think of a comma and add a ‘-la’ at the end.”

2. Gently correct the person.

If you cringe every time a co-worker gets your name wrong, it’s time to speak up. In all likelihood, the person isn’t even aware of their mistake, so just bring it up casually. You could say something like, “I just wanted to mention that my name is actually pronounced…” To lighten the situation, you could also use humour. In her piece in The Muse, Katarina Boogard offers an example: 

Person One: “Your work on this project is impressive, Katrina.”
Person Two: “Thank you so much! My name is actually pronounced Katarina.”
Person One: “Oh, I’m so sorry about that.”
Person Two: “No worries! It happens all of the time. I blame my parents.” 

When it comes to email, Eonnet recommends letting the first mistake slide – it might be a typo, an autocorrect or an innocent mistake. If the error persists, you could send a clarification as a post-script.

3. Make the info available online.

Why not include phonetic spellings or audio clips in your social media bios, LinkedIn profile and email signature? For example, author Celeste Ng uses a wonderfully effective Twitter handle, @pronounced_ing. One final way to take charge: if you’re going to be introduced on a public forum, send the pronunciation of your name in advance to the organiser or host.

In myths and folktales, names are often invested with a deep significance, even magic. There’s a good reason for that: names anchor our identities, playing a vital part in how we understand ourselves as well as our place in the world. Getting this fundamental detail right is crucial to respecting and valuing our co-workers. Let’s create more inclusive workplaces (and communities!) and pronounce names correctly.


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