Names are an inherent part of who we are and making an effort to properly pronounce people’s names, even when they’re outside of your common repertoire.
“Would you mind telling me how your name is pronounced?” It’s a simple question, but one that is skirted around by many people in both personal and professional settings. As awkward as it may seem to you, asking someone how their name is pronounced and learning the proper pronunciation yourself is not only a sign of respect but also an act of allyship.
Ruchika Tulshyan, the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm, explains in a Harvard Business Review article how her difficult-to-pronounce name has put her at a disadvantage in hiring processes and made her feel displaced and uncomfortable in professional settings. She also shares the story of how Arvind Narayanan, a Princeton computer science professor, recently wrote a Twitter thread detailing how his work was praised in the academic community, but avoidance of his name has led to him being excluded from teaching and research opportunities.
This pronunciation disadvantage begins early in Western society. A 2012 study found that mispronunciation of children’s names in the classroom affected their social-emotional well-being and their ability to learn.
To reduce these barriers and ease these encounters for both the pronouncer and individual, Tulshyan shares easy steps to overcoming pronunciation challenges in any setting:
- Ask them! The easiest way to learn the proper pronunciation of someone’s name is just to ask. The effort you’re displaying to understand and acknowledge someone’s identity is far more important than any awkwardness you may feel. Listen intently and practice repeating after them. If you need extra resources, check out these websites on name pronunciation.
- Don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t comment on how difficult someone’s name is to pronounce or justify your inability to do so. Keep the process respectful and professional.
- Observe and practice. Listen to how others are properly pronouncing someone’s name for guidance and, if you know you will have an interaction with someone whose name you have trouble saying, practice it on your own before the situation arises.
- It’s okay to ask for clarification. If you forget or have trouble, it’s okay to ask for clarification once again, especially if it has been a while since you saw the person face-to-face.
- Acknowledge mispronunciation. If you realize you have been mispronouncing someone’s name, acknowledge it, apologize, and correct your pronunciation.
- Be an ally. If you hear someone else mispronouncing a colleague or friend’s name, gently offer up the correct pronunciation. This removes the burden from individuals who have spent their entire lives correcting other people’s pronunciation of their names.
Names are an inherent part of who we are and making an effort to properly pronounce people’s names, even when they’re outside of your common repertoire, is a critical skill for inclusion and equity. As Tulshyan explains, “Learning to pronounce a colleague’s name correctly is not just a common courtesy but it’s an important effort in creating an inclusive workplace, one that emphasizes psychological safety and belonging.”