Do you remember the last time you screwed up the pronunciation of an unfamiliar name? How did it make you feel? How did it make the person whose name you mispronounced feel? More important, how do we create a positive work environment where unintentional “name shaming” is minimized and there is equitable acknowledgment of key identifiers such as a person’s first or last name.
IVY Planning Group Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, Zaineb Haider, recognizes that in the United States her name is less common. “On the first introduction, I always have to repeat my name or spell it out several times – and even then many people get it wrong. At that point, I’ll often say ‘just call me Z,’ but that ends up making me feel like my real identity doesn’t matter to the person I’m talking to, and that’s certainly not a great way to start a relationship.”
So what’s in a name?
Names help us answer the question, “Who am I?” both as an individual and as part of a larger group. Names are a powerful link to our identity, often times connecting us to a family lineage, a language, a place, a culture, a history, and traditions. Names can also connect us to another person as a namesake, or to a generational cultural shift, or even a religion.
“People with Western names take for granted their name privilege every day,” says Haider. “For those with names like mine, exchanging names always brings up feelings of anxiety and even dread.”
That feeling is not self-imposed or unfounded. When others say that a name is difficult to pronounce or remember, this can translate by extension to mean that their identity is a burden on others and therefore, they should somehow change in order to make the moment less awkward for others.
So why does it really matter?
By correctly pronouncing people's names, you are respecting, acknowledging, affirming, and honoring their identity and everything and everyone that it holds and represents. You are fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion, which is critical for building positive relationships, healthy teams, and client connections, all of which can ultimately translate into better business outcomes.
Here are 6 Tips You Can Use Right Now to Address Uncommon Names in the Workplace
1. Give yourself permission to recognize that you are not familiar with the name and therefore it will take some effort and intentionality on your part to learn the name.
2. Take comfort in knowing that the owner of the name recognizes that their name is uncommon to Western ears and they will give you some leeway to learn it. It is less about pronouncing the name perfectly in the initial encounter, and more about an intentional, authentic desire and determination to learn the name, in order to show that you value the individual.
3. Shift your mindset. Rather than thinking the individual has a difficult name to pronounce, consider the idea that the name is difficult for YOU to pronounce because you have not been exposed to the name and therefore have an opportunity to expand your linguistic and cultural capacity.
4. Leverage tools and others to help you learn the name. For example, use your phone to phonetically put the person's name in your contacts or send a recorded message of the person’s name to yourself so that you can practice saying the name.
5. When someone does correct you when you mispronounce their name, recognize and thank the person for investing in a relationship connection with you.
6. Correct others when they say the name incorrectly. There is power in being active as an observer.
By following these simple tips, you will avoid awkward introductory moments that can quickly spiral downward, setting the pathway towards a healthy and productive relationship with your new colleague that can reap positive business benefits for all parties concerned.