There’s a lot in a name.We’ve previously discussed the smoothest way to handle forgetting someone’s name — but what if you don’t know how to pronounce their name in the first place?
Getting someone’s name right is about more than just politeness — it’s an issue of inclusion and respect. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan, author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, shares the tangible connection that someone’s name has to how they’re valued at work. Similarly, a viral post on LinkedIn from Damneet Kaur explains that mispronouncing someone’s name can make them feel excluded and dismissed. And these effects start well before the workplace: Studies have found that students report feel ashamed when their teachers fail to learn how to pronounce their names.
With all the different names in the world, we’re bound to botch a pronunciation here and there. This experience is all-too familiar to immigrants and people with non-white or non-Western names in particular. However, there’s a way to tackle a new name with tact, rather than making people feel lesser-than or othered. The next time you encounter a name you’re unsure how to say correctly, here are some examples of what you shouldn’t say (and what to do instead).
Things to avoid saying when you don’t know how to pronounce a name
“I’m going to butcher this.”
We all mess up names, but people use this phrase as a way to free themselves of expectations.
As someone who has regrettably said this in the past, I understand the instinct to let someone know you’re apologetic going into the pronunciation. However, your attempt to be “bashful” or self-deprecating shouldn’t come at another person’s expense. If you announce that you’re going to butcher someone’s name before you even try saying it, you sound like you’ve already given up. Once you recognise the feeling that you’re going to butcher someone’s name, you can channel that self-awareness into actually asking for the correct pronunciation.
“I’ll never get it right, can I call you another name?”
If someone has a nickname they like to be called, they’ll tell you. Otherwise, it’s wildly disrespectful to ask someone to change what they’re called for your convenience.
“I’m so sorry, I’m the worst. I’m such an idiot!”
There’s no way to know how to pronounce every name in the world. Don’t make a big deal about it. There’s no need for an indulgent, drawn-out apology. These displays are more for you than they are for the person whose name is being mispronounced. What’s more, it usually ends up putting that person in the weird position of comforting you.
Your instinct to apologise is a good one, but as a guiding rule, think about prioritising the other person’s dignity over your pride. Just ask for clarity and move on.
“Wow, that’s so unique. What does it mean?”
Even if your intentions are good, you still shouldn’t shine too big a spotlight on a “unique” name. This could come across as fetishizing non-Western names, which puts people on the spot and singles them out as “other.”
Think about it: Do you know what your name means, Jeff?
“[weird garbled mumbling]”
If you’re going to try to say someone’s name, at least commit to the attempt.
Don’t skip over a name you can’t pronounce.
To learn how to pronounce someone’s name, just ask
“Operate with humility,” Tulshyan writes. If you get a name wrong — which is bound to happen — simply apologise and ask for the correct pronunciation. Tulshyan says that a good rule of thumb is to say, “I’m sorry I mispronounced that. Could you please repeat your name for me?” Then, listen carefully to where the person puts emphasis, and where the inflections are. Repeat after them once or twice, not more. Thank them, and move on.
If you have the opportunity to ask someone’s name ahead of a meeting or announcement, take them aside and say something simple like, “Hey! I don’t want to get your name wrong, how do you pronounce it?” Try to be proactive about double-checking people’s names before meeting, whether or not you’re worried about a particular pronunciation — it’s a strong habit to form.
Taking the time to say someone’s name correctly is a way to convey respect and common courtesy, even if it requires a little more effort on your part. We all botch names, and we can all do better.