Imagine you have to say an unfamiliar name and are afraid to say it wrong. What do you do?
Do you try to pronounce it even at the risk of getting it wrong or do you avoid the name (and perhaps the person) altogether? Do you maybe attempt to shorten the name or invent a nickname for your acquaintance? Do you ask them if they have an easier name?
We have all been faced with this dilemma at one point or another — no one knows how to pronounce every single name in the world. If they think they do, they are probably what education consultant Jennifer Gonzalez calls an “arrogant mangler,” who doesn’t bother to make an effort.
Have you tried to set up an online profile only to be told that your name is invalid or not allowed the way you write it? Have you been accused of not using your real name because it is unusual or it appears differently on your issued identification cards? Do people mix up your first and last names so they are unable to find your name on a list?
Having a common name can be difficult too. People might confuse you with someone else or assign you a nickname to distinguish you from others.
In multilingual and multicultural countries like Canada, people frequently encounter names from diverse languages and cultures. Everyone has stories either about their own name troubles or about difficulties with other people’s names.
But these are not just anecdotes on social media. Name-related difficulties can have serious implications for people’s senses of identity and belonging (or exclusion). Mistreating someone’s name includes writing or saying their name differently from what they assert is correct, as well as using the name as a motive for ridiculing or discriminating against the person. Mistreating names can affect opportunities in education, on the job market and in securing housing.
The way we address each other matters because our names are legally, emotionally and socially connected to how we are able to move through and act in the world. Addressing and referring to people by their correct name is a sign of recognition and respect of their personhood. Ignoring naming preferences can be perceived as an insult or an attack. For example, “deadnaming,” or referring to a person who is transgender by the name they used before they transitioned, can make them feel disrespected and potentially expose them to harassment.
How to be more inclusive
When you are unsure how to pronounce a name, your best option is to ask and try, but avoid turning the name or your discomfort into a spectacle.
Refrain from commenting on people’s names or making a show out of your attempts to pronounce, spell or remember the name. Don’t ignore someone because you dread pronouncing their name. Instead, verify your pronunciation (in person or by using online resources) and practice saying their name by yourself. Make it your responsibility to get it right and include them in the group.
Avoid making assumptions about people based on their name, such as their language abilities, their gender identity or their racial, national, cultural or religious backgrounds. They are not a cultural ambassador or expert on the language you think their name represents, nor do they need saving from a name you deem culturally unfit.
You should also not actively erase aspects of someone’s identity and background by giving them unsolicited nicknames that you find ‘easier’ to pronounce or remember. Careful thought goes into selecting names and the name a person goes by is their choice.
People may have multiple names for different situations and at different times in their life. Accept the name someone tells you and don’t try to be the judge of what you think someone’s name should be. Allow for preferred names on official forms and let people use those names in virtual and in-person face-to-face interactions.
If you are responsible for setting up web identity forms or managing a database of names, remember that personal names do not follow universal standards.
If possible, use a single name field with enough characters and page space to accommodate long names, instead of forcing them into “first,” “middle” and “last” fields that may not fit the full name.
If you do need to use separate name fields, allow for multiple components in the “first” and “last” fields.
Alphabetize by first name so that the number of name components is irrelevant.
Allow people to fill in their pronouns and/or titles that can stand in for names when the person is referred to in the third person.
Responding to mistreatment of names
If people mistreat your name, you can correct others without feeling guilty about it. It is your name and it matters. To reduce errors, you could add an audio “name badge” to your web identity so that others can hear the correct pronunciation.
Your name does not have to be permanent. If name-related problems make life too difficult, you might consider (partially) changing your name or adding another name for specific purposes. Or if that approach does not feel right to you, you can reclaim your original name and use it with confidence.
While we offer these recommendations for respectfully navigating name diversity in workplaces, education, social situations and online environments, they are not a guarantee for smooth sailing. You will not always get it right, and that is normal. The best way to bounce back is to acknowledge the mistake, move forward and do better next time.
The important thing to remember is that names matter, and the way we treat them has an impact.