Wait, what’s your name?

Ever run into a name you haven’t heard of before? A name where the unfamiliar construction of the letters makes it intimidating to pronounce? How do you react in those moments?

I hadn’t put much meaning behind those interactions in the past. Learning a name was sometimes a moment to glide by, knowing I would only need it for a second. In all honesty, sometimes I’d even get around without ever really saying the individual’s name. It wasn’t until a moment in one of my social work classes, when a classmate shared her frustrations, that I learned more about the experience the individual on the other side faces. My classmate shared a story of speaking with a client over the phone who persistently dissected and disrespected her name. It hurt her so much that she decided to talk with her supervisor who simply responded with a “well, I’m glad you got that off your chest.” Feeling deflected, she brought the issue up to our class. We all sat there, trying to deduce the core of the issue, when the classmate began to say “maybe I’m overthinking-” In that moment, another classmate interjected and said “No. That is your name.” They went on to discuss the frustrating experiences they have had with people not only mispronouncing their names but not caring to learn the correct pronunciation. 

I think about this moment when I run into an unfamiliar name. How many times have they experienced someone butchering their name before? How often do they unknowingly interpret not caring about the pronunciation as not caring about their identity? Where did their name come from? How much joy and excitement did their parents feel when they chose the name? The simple exchange in class opened my eyes to an experience that so many individuals experience daily.

When running into a name that is unfamiliar:

  1. Remember the name is unique to you, not to the individual. Try to approach the meeting as an opportunity to learn and connect, not to express your approval of the name. 
  2. Ask directly and be careful about backhanded explanations. A simple, “How do you pronounce your name?” is better than “How do you pronounce your name? I am definitely going to mess that up!”
  3. Repeat it back. Don’t just give the individual the role of saying their name. Repeat it back yourself until you get it right. Do not give up or let it go to speed up the process. 

 Beyond pronunciation or spelling itself, biases can often come through when people say a name for the first time. Having a pretty common name myself, I don’t have issues with people pronouncing Jasmine, however, I do run into several occasions where people see that I am Indian-American and instantly change Jasmine to any pronunciation that sounds more Indian to them. To those individuals, it is easier to comprehend that my name would be “Yasmin” or “Jasmeen” instead of “Jasmine.” I can understand those moments as innocent attempts at trying to be “correct” but an underlying bias showing through. 

Clearly the simplicity I had once attributed to saying a name kept me from a world of understanding, validating, and respecting others better. The simple act of asking the individual for the correct pronunciation and not giving up until you get it right, is an act of respect that is often overlooked. I encourage you to see the name of your client, patient, teacher, customer, student, coworker as an opportunity to connect, not to work around. 

Have you ever been on the receiving end of these interactions?