I don’t expect you to get my name right, but I want you to try: Why making the effort to pronounce names is important

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My name feels like three awkward syllables that will never quite roll off your tongue. It’s Annika, and you pronounce it by saying the name “Ann,” followed by the name “Nick,” and a moment of realization: “Ah.”

Not Aw-nih-kah, Aw-nee-kah or any other iteration you might be thinking of.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain that to other people only for them to butcher my name the next time we meet.

It’s hard to remember any name, and it’s harder when they’re unusual like mine, so I don’t always blame them. But I still can’t ignore the gut feeling I get when people I’ve already corrected multiple times are wrong, or when someone doesn’t seem to care enough to ask me.

My name is closely tied to my identity and mispronunciations weigh more heavily on me than most people think. There’s also the sheer embarrassment and fear of interrupting a 250-person conversation, work meeting, or class to correct someone—if I can muster the courage.

It’s something I wish more people would understand, or at least consider. So I decided to find out: How common is my experience with an unusual name?

It turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way.

It’s a shared experience full of stress and embarrassment

Before writing this, I posted to my Instagram story hoping to find one or two other people who would be comfortable talking to me about their unusual name.

Twenty-five people reached out to share their experiences with me, and 21 of them said that misstatements were harmful to them in some way.

“[It] always feels embarrassing and inhumane, like my name is an inconvenience to others and not important to my personality and identity,” Johan Alvarado, a San Francisco-based editorial assistant for HarperCollins Publishers, told me.

Sixteen people, including Alvarado, told me that their name was sometimes a source of stress or anxiety. Fourteen of them pointed specifically to work or classroom situations.

That’s common, says Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

People often view mispronunciations as subtle insults, disparages, or invalidations, says Durkee. And whether intentional or completely accidental, these types of micro-aggressions can affect a person’s mental health.

“They are stressors. Cumulatively, they have a much greater effect on individuals, which over time can lead to negative correlations with mental health,” says Durkee.

Studies over the past decade point to the mental health consequences of microaggressions, including low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and depression.

That’s partly why some people choose alternative ways to say their name.

Mispronunciations can push people to choose alternatives – with mixed results

In fourth grade, I had my class call me Aw-nee-kah all school year. My teacher pronounced it that way during roll call on the first day, and I panicked inwardly about correcting her. Instead, I sheepishly raised my hand to indicate I was there.

I decided not to correct anyone after that day. I was afraid that I would confuse them, make their daily interactions with me difficult, or have to correct them dozens of times. In hindsight, I wish I had talked about it.

Five people I spoke to described choosing nicknames. Shefali Raghavan, a risk audit associate in New York, sometimes shortens her name to “Shef.” It’s an easy alternative that doesn’t raise any awkward questions, she says, but whenever she hears the nickname she can’t help but feel disappointment and regret.

“I feel like I’m lowering my standards for who I am,” says Raghavan.

Some people deliberately adopt more white-sounding names, which can affect their relationship to their cultural identity. Xuenan Lily Hu, a product manager in New York, says she often chooses to use “Lily” instead of “Xuenan,” but she doesn’t always like it.

“My Chinese name, Xuenan, is not just a label of who I am. It’s also an acknowledgment of the culture I come from,” says Hu. “If I choose to go through Lily instead, I feel like I’m letting go of that part of my identity to comfortably settle into conformity.”

So why would you do it? Convenience, both for others and for yourself – will save you the energy required to repeatedly correct those around you.

What you can do to help those around you

Mispronunciations, corrections, and adjustments can take a toll on people with unusual names. You may be surprised how much you can help and how little effort it takes.

Names can be difficult. You may be wrong several times – and that’s OK. It’s your intention that matters, says Durkee: If you’ve just met someone and you’re going to hang out with them a lot in the future, take the time and effort to at least say it correctly.

If you’re unsure of a pronunciation, or what name someone prefers to use, don’t guess. Ask, and if you find yourself forgetting the answer, apologize and ask again.

“A lot of times people will just be comforted and happy that you took the initiative,” says Durkee.

Just don’t make an executive decision without asking, he adds: That choice should always be “in the hands of the person whose name it is.”

That’s right for me. I don’t expect people to perfect my name the first or second time. I don’t hold a grudge against people who still butcher it today.

All I ask is that you try.

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