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Do You Have Name Privilege?

Do you remember the last time you mispronounced an unfamiliar name? How did it make you feel? How did it make the person whose name you mispronounced feel? 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 not 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 matter. They help us to 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, oftentimes connecting us to a family lineage, a language, a place, a culture, a history, and the associated traditions. Names can also connect us to another person as a treasured namesake, or to a generational cultural shift, or even a religion.

​“People with Western names take for granted their name privilege every day,” Haider said. “For those with names like mine, exchanging names always brings up feelings of anxiety and even dread.”

Haider’s feeling is not self-imposed or unfounded. When others say that a name is different or difficult to pronounce or remember, they may not mean any explicit harm. But these sentiments can translate to mean that the person they’re speaking to belongs to an identity that is a burden or troublesome, or “other.” The subtext there may read as: Change this facet of who you are in order to make these moments less awkward for others.

So, why does it matter?

Something as simple as correctly pronouncing someone's name indicates that you respect, acknowledge, accept, and honor their identity, and everything and everyone that it represents. You are fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion on a foundational level, which is critical to build positive relationships, healthy teams, and client connections, all of which can ultimately translate into better business outcomes.

Here are six things to consider right now to address uncommon names in the workplace:

1. Recognize that you are not familiar with the name. That’s okay. Admitting that you don’t know something can motivate you to make the effort to learn not only the correct pronunciation, but hopefully a bit more about who that person is as well.

2. Understand that the name's owner recognizes that their name is uncommon. Western ears are logically most familiar with names of Western origin, and that too is okay. It’s less about pronouncing the name perfectly in the initial encounter and more about demonstrating an intentional, authentic desire and determination to understand the name’s pronunciation, and 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 that person’s culture or place of origin. Therefore, you’re being presented with an opportunity to expand your linguistic and cultural capacity.

4. Get help and practice. For example, in order to learn how to pronounce the name you could phonetically put the person's name in the contacts on your phone, or send a recorded message of the person’s name to yourself so that you can practice saying it.

5. Display gratitude. When someone corrects you when you mispronounce their name, recognize and thank the person for investing in this moment of connection with you.

6. Correct others. You likely are not the only person who finds that individual’s name challenging at first. So, if or when you hear someone else say the name incorrectly, share the right pronunciation. There is power in being an active observer.

By following these simple considerations, you will avoid awkward introductory moments or even awkward ongoing relationships, and instead create a healthy and productive relationship with your colleague that can reap positive business benefits for all parties concerned.


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