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Why It's Important to Pronounce People's Names Correctly

Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in Clinical psychology. She specializes in Pediatric Psychology and Behavioral Medicine.

Mispronouncing a Name

I remember when Kamala Harris became Joe Biden’s running mate. At the time, it seemed funny how many people pronounced her name incorrectly, even after she’d been asked the pronunciation during several interviews. In some cases, it was just a matter of someone putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Other times, though, people added syllables, so her name became Kamamala or Kamalala. On one occasion, a news anchor became upset when being corrected, and purposely called her Kumbaya.

Things took a turn for the worst, as some seemed to use her name as a way of taunting, disparaging and insulting her. Donald Trump refused to pronounce her name correctly, when he was willing to refer to her at all. Former Republican Senator David Perdue, then trying to win reelection, gleefully made fun of her name when speaking to a large crowd. “Kuh-mah-luh or comma-luh or kuh-mah-luh, kuh-mah-luh mah-luh mah-luh. I don’t know. Whatever,” he tossed off, as the audience laughed loudly.

Even our first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonya Sotomayor, managed to mispronounce her name when swearing her in, without making an effort to correct it.

At one point Tucker Carlson, who hosts an extreme right-wing conservator show often referred to as “The White Power Hour,” became furious with a guest who corrected his repeated mispronunciations of “Kamala,” whining “So, I’m disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally?” Actually, yes, you are.

Personal Experience Tutoring Multinational Students

This issue has resonated with me as I’ve begun tutoring adults from other countries in English. Many of my students are from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and sometimes their names are difficult for me to pronounce, even after asking them how to say it. I usually do my best to learn the pronunciation, and sometimes when I mangle a name at first, it leads to shared laughter and breaks the ice, then when I work to get it right it builds rapport.

But admittedly on a few occasions, a name has been so difficult for me to perceive the pronunciation that I will simply say, “Okay, nice to meet you,” without attempting it and move on.

As I’ve worked with more students, I’ve noticed a couple of trends that bother me. Many students seem reluctant to correct me when I attempt to learn their names correctly, and even though I can hear that I’ve said it wrong, they seem uncomfortable and just tell me I’ve pronounced it correctly.

The other thing I’ve seen in growing numbers is students “adopting” an English name. When I ask if that’s their real name, they’ll confirm it isn’t but that it’s easier for me so that’s what I should call them.

The student I tutor daily, for example, is from China and I’ve seen her full name on a resume she has asked for help with. But the name on her profile and the one she gave me is “Carol,” which doesn’t even seem to resemble her actual name. On my end, the name doesn’t seem to fit at all and so instead of using it, I avoid calling her anything. Another student who is from Korea uses the name “Mary,” when talking to a native English speaker, although her actual name does not include an M or R sound.

Names and Fitting In

It’s much more common than many think, for people to change their names in order to fit in. This is especially the case in job situations. Racial and cultural minorities often attempt to avoid discrimination in hiring by hiding racial cues on the resume and application including changing their name to sound more anglicized. This is referred to as “resume whitening.”

According to research from Stanford University and the University of Toronto, almost 50 percent of black and Asian job applicants who changed the information on their resumés did so by altering their name to remove any racial cues. Additionally, there was evidence that this tactic can be a successful one as it was also discovered that minority applicants who “whitened” their resumes were two times as likely to be offered interviews compared to those who used their actual names and other ethnic details.

This suggests that such practices are embedded into our job market mindset whether this is conscious or unconscious. Given that there appears to be validity to fears of discrimination based on ethnic characteristics, this mindset reinforces the belief that those who come from ethnic groups need to anglicize their names in order to succeed in the US and other countries whose first language is English.

Keeping the Peace Vs. Putting Ourselves First

Xian Zhao, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto who researches ethnic name pronunciation, says that many people don’t understand that habitually pronouncing an unfamiliar name inaccurately is a form of implicit discrimination. It sends a message that “you are minimal”, says Zhao. “You are not important in this environment, so why should I take time and my effort to learn it?”

On the other end, those with ethnic names frequently don’t correct people, even when their name is pronounced wrong repeatedly, feeling it is better just to keep the peace and not stand out for being difficult.

The Subtle Message Sent by Mispronouncing Names

It is not necessarily the case that all people who pronounce names wrong are doing so purposely or for explicit reasons. It is usually something that is not fully conscious or done out of discomfort or embarrassment over not knowing how to say something.

When it is done to someone repeatedly and they either want to fit in and so they don’t correct someone or they correct someone and that person seems to get annoyed, the individual will often avoid pointing out mistakes in the future. But these tendencies can have a negative side-effect

According to Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who specializes in race, identity, and cultural code-switching, “Getting names wrong can go under the radar for a lot of individuals. Other people can see it as, ‘oh, it's not that big of a deal,’” says Durkee. “What makes it detrimental is the chronic pattern of doing this consistent mispronunciation. And the ripple effects from that are much more adverse, signaling to the individual that they're less important, that they're less valued.”

Over time, those whose names are repeatedly mispronounced may internalize this message, and begin to believe it about themselves.

Take Away on Pronouncing Names Right

  1. It is important to try to pronounce everyone’s name as they pronounce it. This communicates respect of them as a person and their culture instead of implying it is their job to fit themselves into our culture.
  2. Even if you aren’t able to pronounce it perfectly, trying to do so says you want to be able to call them what they want to be called. There is nothing wrong with asking someone to repeat their name so that you can learn to pronounce it properly. This is usually appreciated.
  3. When we hold the belief that getting others' names right is just not important, this can be viewed as a form of implicit discrimination.
  4. While this form of bias is frequently unconscious, we need to make ourselves aware of it every time we skip over someone’s name because we don’t know how to say it.
  5. When someone's name is constantly mispronounced and these mistakes aren’t even considered, the message we are sending them is that they aren’t as important as the majority. Over time, it’s not unlikely that they will internalize these beliefs about themselves.

The Sound of Your Own Name

It’s been said that the sweetest sound you can hear is the sound of your own name. If we in the US are truly proud of being a “melting pot” and intend to be represented by the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, the least we can do is try to pronounce each other’s names properly, no matter where we come from or how different the name is from our own.

© 2021 Natalie Frank