Proper pronunciation of one’s name is critical for belonging

Be inclusive when asking about someone’s name pronunciation

Names are our favorite words. From the time we are babies we hear our names more than any other word in our lifetimes. So when someone says it doesn’t matter how you pronounce their name or you can call them a nickname you’ve arbitrarily decided to call them instead of their preferred name, they’re likely not being 100% truthful, they’ve just gotten used to the bad behavior of people in the past.

People that want to be inclusive signal with their words and actions their inclusivity. They’re authentic and genuine with their actions and their words and invite people into conversations. One of the primary ways we do that is by learning about people as humans and their names are an essential component to their identity.

A lot of people have a fun backstory behind their names. Maybe it’s in relation to a family member, their parents’ interests, or what their names mean. For folks in the US or English speaking countries, there might be more standard sounding names that are easy to pronounce.

My name happens to be fairly common and easy to pronounce for folks and easy to spell. My maiden name however was not – Eble. I remember the painful first day of class when the teacher would try to say my last name and never get it right. While this isn’t at all the same as the adversity folks with very unique names or names that are from countries outside of their home countries, yet I still remember that experience of feeling different, othered, and embarrassed. Being called “Eble Rebel” on the playground or “Julie Pebble” were not my favorite childhood memories.

Learning someone’s name protects them from shame.

When someone doesn’t say your name correctly or doesn’t even attempt to say it because they don’t know how it provokes primal fear in us. A fear of not belonging or fitting in. A fear of not being accepted with our unique identity. It’s much bigger than just saying someone’s name.

Signal you want to be an ally by sharing your name pronunciation.

LinkedIn has a feature where you can record your name being pronounced to signal you want to be inclusive of learning other people’s names. You can also add your pronunciation to your email signature and on Zoom you can phonetically spell out your name to help people pronounce it correctly on the call. Look it up. There are some great websites that can help you.

As Ruchika Tulshyan states in her article “If You Don’t Know How to Say Someone’s Name, Just Ask,” it is a chance to be an ally for someone different from you as you learn about them, their name, and their identity. Alyse Kalish also recommends these tips in her article “5 Ways to Avoid Awkwardness When You Don’t Know How to Pronounce Someone’s Name”:

1. Look for a Recording or Find a Phonetic Spelling
2. Phone a Friend
3. Really Listen During the Introduction
4. Avoid Saying the Name for as Long as Possible
5. Just Ask (Politely)

The key is to not avoid saying someone’s name for a long time if you don’t know how to say it. You can easily pick up cues and clues as you get to know the person to appropriately say their name.

Watch out for bias with names

One study found that resumes with white-sounding names were 28% more likely to get a callback for a job interview. Many companies use name scrubbing software that also removes addresses and universities as this can also signal bias. The key is that we are naturally attracted to people like us. It’s called affinity bias. We all have it and we all have to proactively manage it.

We learn more from people different from us.

While we might gravitate towards people with similar backgrounds and lived experiences to us, one of the best ways we can learn is from people different from us with different backgrounds and lived experiences. This is why diverse and inclusive teams outperform those that are not as diverse and inclusive. Different perspectives help us create more innovative ideas, solve problems more deeply, and better reflect the needs of our customers and communities of which we hope to serve.

Learning someone’s name is a way to unlock more diversity and inclusion on your team. It’s a signal that you want to accept folks different from yourself and you’re willing to go through the discomfort of learning something new. You might feel vulnerable or uncomfortable saying the name and not knowing if it’s right. My experience has been trying to say someone’s name as best you can and then saying “I’m not sure if I got that right” is better than not saying someone’s name or asking someone to say their name again when they already introduced themselves.

Allies signal they want to learn more about people different from us. They do hard things. Learning and saying names correctly is important.

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.