Most people would agree that names matter. At the most basic level, they serve as important identifiers. We introduce ourselves with them. We even choose new ones because they are more aligned with our identities.
Given their elemental importance, it should then follow that the pronunciation of names should also matter. And perhaps they do. That is, until we deem a name too “difficult.” But what makes a name “difficult” to pronounce?
The learning and pronunciation of unfamiliar names is a skill and practice that needs to be valued, honed, and exercised. But instead, as New York artist N’Jameh Camara points out, many people choose to shed their own responsibility for name-learning by writing names off as “too challenging.” So what does it signal when we communicate that an unfamiliar name is not worth learning?
For those of us who experience discrimination for our identities, chronic mispronunciation of our names in the classroom and the workplace can be especially painful. Refusal to learn the correct pronunciation can feel like erasure—another signal of not being welcome. To better understand why these seemingly harmless acts can have such a deep impact on someone’s sense of belonging, I would like to share my own story.
I grew up as one of the few Asians (and people of color) in a predominantly white suburb in New Jersey. When I was in kindergarten, a boy asked me if I was the kind of monster who ate dogs—he had heard that all Asians eat pets. Throughout my elementary school years, people would exclaim “ching chong, ching chong!” and ask me what this meant in my language. It was clear. I was different.
As a young person born in the U.S., I did my best to minimize or erase the elements of my life that signaled “Other”-ness or “foreignness.” This was the only way I knew how to cope with the shame and embarrassment I felt for being born to a non-white family. I begged my mom to pack bologna or PB&J sandwiches instead of Korean food for lunch. By the time I entered middle school, I stopped speaking Korean to my parents and grandparents. I was desperate to be accepted, to be above reproach, to be alarmingly normal—in short, to belong.
However, even when acceptance was my primary goal in my younger years, I was always unapologetic about my name: Yejin. I could hear the anxiety in a substitute teacher’s voice when trying to read my name off for attendance, and I would preemptively correct them. I found new and creative ways of explaining phonetics—to give people more tools to say my name, to see me, to respect me. Despite all my efforts, a majority of my peers never learned how to say my name. My continued attachment to “Yejin”, even during periods of intentional assimilation, served as a glimmer of hope that one day, people would accept me for who I was.
From the schoolyard to the workplace
Once I entered the workforce, I assumed that my name would no longer be a source of drama. This was sadly not the case. Colleagues and bosses would say things like, “Don’t you have an American name?” or “It’s too hard, I’m just going to make up a nickname for you” or “You can’t expect me to say your name correctly since it’s not in English.” Even now, as a professional in my 30's, I continue to confront folks who resist or become defensive about my corrections.
When my colleagues don’t bother putting in the work of pronouncing my name correctly, I sense that I am not worth the effort. And whether it’s right or wrong, this makes me remember the times in my life when I was made to feel different and most unwelcome.
Learning and growing through mistakes
“Learning each other’s name is a matter of spiritual will and value," Camara writes. "Do we see someone as valuable enough to connect with on a level that involves something more than what they are producing for us?”
When we decide that the answer to this question is “yes,” it means we must accept the responsibility of truly learning everyone’s names—regardless of our comfort level or a name’s perceived difficulty.
This is not to say that mispronunciation of a name should or will never occur. Growth happens most readily when mistakes are made, and when people are ready and able to hold themselves accountable. I, for one, am filled with positive feelings when I witness colleagues putting effort into re-learning how to say my name. When I see this, I tend to focus less on the past/present mistakes, and more on what their labor and efforts signal to me. It shows me that I matter, that I am welcome, that I belong. And that is what I have been looking for all my life!
Quick tips for learning how to pronounce a colleague’s name
- Research the name and see if there are any videos where people pronounce it. Before a new colleague begins, it can be helpful to research a name that you are not familiar with. Sometimes, you may find videos where the name is pronounced, or phonetic breakdowns that can help you familiarize yourself. While you should not assume that you have the correct pronunciation, having a point of reference can be useful. There are also resources like www.pronouncenames.com that offer some phonetic breakdowns of a name.
- Be humble and admit when you’re having difficulty with a name. If you sense that you will not be able to pronounce someone’s name on the first try, humble yourself and acknowledge that it may take you a little time and effort to get it right. You can say something like, “I wanted to let you know that it might take me a little bit of time to pronounce your name correctly, but it is important to me that I do.” There’s no need to defend yourself or tell the person that their name is too difficult!
- Write out a phonetic spelling that you can understand and repeat. Spelling phonetically refers to the written representation of sounds you hear into corresponding letters. Take the name “Ravish Shekaraiah,” for example. When you ask him to pronounce his name, it might be helpful to write Rav-eesh Shek-ra-ja in your notebook. You can keep that written in your notebook to reference or practice it later.
- Practice the correct pronunciation. This might sound basic and silly, but repetition and muscle memory are your friends! Try saying the name 10 times in a row when the correct pronunciation is fresh. Keep writing out the phonetic spelling if that helps you to absorb information. Perhaps you can find a peer who knows how to pronounce your colleague’s name and ask them whether you are saying it correctly. Do the work of committing it to memory.
While it may require a bit of labor, doing the work to correctly say your colleague’s name can lead to a more genuinely inclusive environment for all!
Have you ever struggled with a colleague's name—or been on the receiving end of mispronunciations? Tweet at us to tell us about it.
Yejin Lee is a nonprofit professional and career coach based in New York City. She is most passionate about supporting nonprofits in operationalizing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework, and assisting individuals in thoughtfully identifying and strategically pursuing professional goals. Yejin also loves cooking, eating, annotating TV shows, and hanging out with her husband and sassy shiba inu.