For most of my life, my name has been mispronounced or misspelled by seemingly everyone unfamiliar with its cultural relevance. Often they’ll replace it with something more common (Alicia) or something spelled similarly (Asia) without realising their mistake. But constant mispronunciations (or the assignment of a nickname because your name is “tricky” to say or remember) are examples of name-based micro-aggressions that can result in anxiety when introducing yourself, and perhaps even evidence of an indifference to your feelings that amounts to a form of bullying. It can leave you feeling utterly demoralized, and ignoring the behaviour only allows for the mistreatment to persist.
Rita Kholi, an assistant professor of education, society, and culture at the University of California studying the effects of micro-aggressions on individuals, told NPR, “[t]he changing of people’s names has a racialized history … grounded the renaming [that occurred] during slavery. There is a lot of history that’s tied to this practice that is directly tied to racism.”
When these actions are perpetuated, mispronunciations become the accepted norm, continuing the cycle. Here’s what you can do to combat it if it’s happening to you.
If someone says your name wrong, don’t let it slide. Feel free to interrupt them with a correction or to let them know how to pronounce it properly. Bring attention to the importance of getting your name right. Podcaster Keya Roy, who co-hosts RadioActive Youth Media, said, “interrupting someone to say, ‘It’s Keya, not Keeya,’ isn’t me being irritating, it’s me putting my foot down against a vehicle of racism, and then in turn, creating an environment in which owning your name is the norm, not the exception.”
The act of correction signals to that person that the pronunciation of your name is important, and that it is their responsibility to learn it. If you are on the receiving end of such a correction, be attentive. If you aren’t sure how to say someone’s name, ask. Don’t make a guess, and certainly don’t simply give the person a nickname that’s easier for you to remember.
Anticipate common mispronunciations
Having to repeatedly correct someone in a work or formal social setting is frustrating, and as a result, it can become difficult to maintain your professionalism. It is possible to be assertive but not rude in these situations. (Outside of a professional setting, the reaction is at your discretion). Fast Company suggests preemptively addressing any issues individuals might have with your name. For instance, introduce yourself with the proper phonetic pronunciation. A friend of mine always introduces herself as “Lacretta with an E.” This prompts people to say “La-cree-ta” instead of “La-Kret-a.” Stav Ziv, who has written about workplace discrimination for The Muse, noted that this type of repetition helps people register the proper pronunciation and remember it effectively moving forward.
Have a memorable conversation about your name
Go a step further and have a deeper conversation about your name. Telling the story of your name gives power to its cultural importance. It doesn’t have to be about teaching the other person a lesson (as it is not your job to be an ambassador for your culture — unless you want to be one). Rather, it’s about heading off potential issues by having a memorable conversation about your name and the right way to say it. If the person you’re talking to shares the story of their own name in turn, even better — yours will be that much more cemented in their memory.
We should all feel empowered by our names and able to be assertive with those who mispronounce them — whether through a thoughtless slip up or a persistent disregard for our feelings.