What's in a name?
For many people, the answer to that question is, a lot. Names are often rooted in family, culture and religion. They're an extension of our identities.
That's why a few weeks ago, Life Kit published an episode about why pronouncing names correctly is no small thing. Host Noor Wazwaz spoke with author and inclusion expert Ruchika Tulshyan about her experiences getting her name mispronounced her whole life — and for tips to correct yourself and others. Ruchika said that until very recently, she'd felt ashamed, even embarrassed, about her name. Sometimes she even made restaurant reservations with the name Rachel to avoid the hassle of correcting people.
The episode struck a chord, and hundreds of listeners and readers reached out to tell us about their own experiences.
So many responses began with stories of school. Massachusetts college student Evelis Cruz called in to tell us a story about winning a contest in second grade — only to have her principal butcher her name at an awards ceremony. Correcting him onstage is something she's still proud of. "I will forever be grateful for having my name, even if people mispronounce it, because it's given me so many defining experiences. It's taught me a lot about valuing myself, having confidence — even being considerate towards other people, being inclusive, and being brave enough to tell people when they're wrong," she said.
Others spoke about the awkward dance of correcting a new boss, or the process of realizing how important their name was, after years of hearing it butchered.
Here are some other responses we received:
"I can't remember a time when my name was ever pronounced correctly, all of middle school...I was in high school, junior year, when a teacher asked me how to say my name correctly, and that had spread to other teachers... And I think that was a really big deal to me, because it felt like my name mattered and I felt seen." -Keshav Malani (Keshav eventually co-founded NameDrop, which allows users to share name pronunciations through a link in their email signatures and social media.)
"Even though I've only lived for 12 years, my name has been mispronounced countless number of times. I even gave myself the nickname Sunny to spare myself the 10 minutes of teaching someone to pronounce my name."-Sanskrithi Kokkonda
"I'll admit, I'm naturally shy and a people pleaser, so I'm not very good at correcting folks (working on it!). But I so appreciate it when someone asks how I pronounce my name and takes the time to practice saying it right. My name is more than a name; it is my heritage, my cultural identity, my identity as an Iranian-American woman." -Mahtaab Bagherzadeh
"When I was in kindergarten, I was a child of immigrants growing up in a predominantly white town in West Virginia, and my teacher mispronounced my name after I said my name to the class. Not wanting to correct her, I went with it and after that I couldn't really fix it. I ended up going all the way through high school with a mispronounced name ... Looking back, I wish I would have stepped up and said more, but as a family, we did what we could to just follow along and fit in." -Sathiyan Sivakumaran
"Kiyomi means beautiful understanding, but in my experience, my name is anything but understood ... I get that people may not ask for your correct pronunciation because they themselves are embarrassed, and I'm no name pronunciation expert myself. But honestly, I prefer if you gave my name your best shot and then asked for the correct pronunciation — and remember it. I get most annoyed by people who've met me several times and still say my name incorrectly, despite hearing others and myself say my own name correctly." -Kiyomi Honda Yamamoto
If you're not sure how to pronounce someone's name, just ask, says Ruchika, the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm. And there's no need for a dramatic apology or drawn-out explanation if you've made a mistake. Pronouncing names correctly is "one of those ways that you can really practice anti-racism and practice allyship in the moment," she says.
Read about the original episode here, or listen here.
We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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