Pronouncing Names Correctly Is More Than Common Courtesy : Life Kit Our names are an extension of who we are. And if your name is mispronounced all the time, you know how painful that can be. In this episode, we're talking about why getting names right is so important — and how to correct others and rectify your own mistakes.

Why Pronouncing Names Correctly Is More Than Common Courtesy

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NOOR WAZWAZ, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Noor Wazwaz.

When you think of your name, what does it mean to you? Maybe you're named after a grandparent, or maybe your name has a unique story behind it. Or it could be rooted in a language, culture or religion, like my name, Noor. It means light in Arabic. Whatever the case might be, a person's name is a connection to their identity, an extension of who they are.

But what happens when you have a name that people aren't familiar with? Chances are it's constantly being butchered and mispronounced. Trust me; I know the feeling. Pronouncing someone's name correctly isn't just a common courtesy. It's far more than just the syllables that come out of someone's mouth. It's an important effort to create an inclusive society, a way to emphasize safety and belonging. And so on today's LIFE KIT, getting people's names right.

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RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: It is extremely necessary as a key component of belonging, of feeling like you're valued, feeling like you're seen and heard. It's one of those really subtle nuances that can make a huge difference.

WAZWAZ: I spoke with Ruchika Tulshyan. Ruchika is a journalist and author and the founder of an inclusion strategy firm called Candour. Last year, she wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review about why and how to gracefully correct yourself and others. She wrote it in part because she says she's gotten her name mispronounced her whole life.

TULSHYAN: Actually, until very recently, there was just a lot of shame associated with it. And it was more blame for myself, like I wish my parents hadn't named me this, and this is so embarrassing, and is there a different name I could call myself? And somewhere, I'd say in the last three to five years, especially as I, you know, deepened my practice in inclusion strategy, spoke to people really around the world, employees within organizations who had faced a similar challenge as I had, I started realizing that, actually, not only is it a key component of creating an inclusive environment, but there obviously is nothing to be ashamed of, right? Like, this is - names are beautiful, they're special and they're so much a part of our identity that if we don't make that extra effort to get names right, we are really, really excluding others.

WAZWAZ: Yeah. I mean, I could definitely relate to that. You know, growing up, I would change - you know, my name's Noor, but I would change my name to Nora because it's something that was a more Western-sounding name. It was easier for people to pronounce. And, you know, even growing up, I would see a lot of, you know, Arab or Muslim kids around me also trying to change their names. Like a Mohammed (ph) would turn into Moe or Mike. And, you know, I see that a lot for other communities. And I just can't help but think about the ripple effects this has on cultures, you know, first of all, internally - meaning how communities start to view themselves - but also the effect that this has on cultures externally - how people perceive other cultures.

TULSHYAN: One of the interesting things is, for me, growing up in Singapore, where especially people who are Christian would often have dual names - so they would have often a Chinese name, and then they would have an Anglo-Saxon, Christian, you know, or originated-from-the-Bible name. Especially, again, in a more global work environment, people perceived the people with an Anglo-Saxon name, even if they also had a Chinese name, as much more sort of being able to fit in, much more, you know, able to lead, much more being able to assimilate into the culture. And those who decided to, you know, continue keeping on their Chinese name or they didn't actually have an Anglo-Saxon name, I would often hear, you know - sometimes I'd hear people making fun of them, even in school, for example.

And then I also noticed that with myself, right? Like, when I would - you know, I'd make a restaurant reservation under the name, for example, Rachel (ph), which is quite easy, you know, to kind of deduce from my name. It's not that hard. I would notice that people were like, hi, Rachel, and - versus when I would make a restaurant reservation with my real name, people would be like, oh, hi. Hi. Welcome. Welcome in. Like, you know what I mean? So I think there is this perception that you are much more Westernized and you can definitely assimilate much more into the culture if you have a more Western-sounding name.

Now, I will say the newer generations that have come after me, I find them to be quite proud of their, quote-unquote, you know, "real names" that are not Western. I teach at Seattle University, and I find that my students are much more proud and are much more - you know, they'll actually push back and say, no, this is actually how you say my name.

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WAZWAZ: So let's talk about some of the tips that you give in your Harvard Business Review article. Say I meet someone and I've only seen their name written down or I've never heard them say their name out loud. What's the best way to ask how to pronounce it?

TULSHYAN: I mean, I think just being honest, just saying, you know, could you pronounce your name for me, please? Or, you know, how do you pronounce your name, I think is completely fine. And whenever I've had someone ask me that, I feel so much better than when someone takes a stab at it, gets it wrong, then it turns into this whole thing where you're trying to make them feel better, like, no, no. You know, they're like, oh, my gosh, I'm so silly. I got it wrong. Oh, I've - you know, it's because of this and it's because of that, and here's this other reason. Here's this other excuse. And then you're sort of making them feel better about the situation.

It doesn't have to turn into, like, oh, that's such an interesting name. That's so exotic. I've heard all - that's so beautiful. That's so different. I've never heard that before. Then it's, like, even more otherizing. So my recommendation is just direct approach. How do I pronounce it? Thanks for pronouncing it for me.

WAZWAZ: What should people do if they mispronounce someone else's name? What's the best way to correct that kind of mistake?

TULSHYAN: Oh, that happens. That happens to me all the time, right? I mean, I'm even thinking of my role as an educator, and especially these days in virtual times. You know, I'll start my class with, you know, 20 students, often from - you know, many international students, too. And, you know, I'll get a name wrong, for sure, even virtually. And then I'll just be swift as you corrected. It's totally fine just to say, I'm sorry; I think I mispronounced that. I think it's totally fine if someone says to me, oh, I recognize I've been saying your name wrong all this while. I hear that it's Ruchika. I'm sorry about that. And move on.

WAZWAZ: Right. I can't help but think that someone might be listening and think, you know, this is such a small thing. Why are we making mispronouncing a name such a big deal? But, you know, I've also been on the other side. You have, too. And we know what it's like to constantly have your name mispronounced. So how would you explain to them why it isn't a small thing and it's actually important and necessary?

TULSHYAN: Yeah. Our name is such an important part of our identity, you know? And we've got so much of our - really our sense of self wrapped up in our names, you know? And especially if you come from a culture that is not in the dominant culture, it is largely, you know, not represented or might even be misrepresented. You know, there's a real sense of pride that can come with having your name - right? - and an attachment to a culture.

And I actually think about this a lot because five years ago, when I was about to have my son, I really thought to myself, what's a name I can give him that connects him to our Indian culture? Knowing that he's going to be born in the United States, knowing that he's going to be an American citizen, how do I ensure he can still feel connected to his name? And yet, my partner and I really agonized over, what's the name that we could give him that does that and will not be butchered like my name has been butchered my whole life? And so that was - it was a real sense of, like, a real moment of agony. And I would love for others to empathize with that 'cause it happens to people from nondominant cultures all over the world all the time.

But I think more than the sense of identity and more than that sense of culture is research that's been done, especially in schools - there isn't enough, actually, that's been done in workplaces, although there's studies done, for example, when recruiters and hiring managers are looking at resumes, they're less likely to call back names that are non-Anglo-Saxon - right? - like, call them back for an interview. And that's in studies done in France and Canada, in the United States. So we really do need to address those biases 'cause people are missing out on opportunities as a result of, you know, their names, which is just ridiculous.

At the same time, when studies have been done in schools, we find that when teachers mispronounce students' names, especially, you know, in the K-12 education system, children feel really, really ashamed. They feel like they don't belong. They start sort of shutting down and feeling more shame about their culture. I hope we can also gather more, you know, academic data on this because I think it's important.

WAZWAZ: You know, if listeners out there get their names mispronounced all the time, do you have any other recommendations for correcting people, you know, especially when it could be awkward if the person butchering your name is, like, your boss or someone you're trying to work for?

TULSHYAN: Gosh, this has happened all the time. And, you know, and then there's that gendered approach where prevailing, you know, gender norms tells women, like, to be more confident, don't say sorry. But I do, you know? I'll say, I'm sorry; you are mispronouncing my name. So I've known people, for example, for seven, eight, 10 years who have mispronounced my name, and it's only in the last three to five years that I felt more comfortable correcting them.

So sometimes I will meet someone who I've known for at least, you know, eight years, and they've mispronounced my name again. And I'll say, hey, I'm sorry, but, you know, my name is pronounced Ruchika. And they're like, oh, my goodness, I'm so sorry. Have I been saying it wrong for the last, you know, 10 years? I think it's totally fine to acknowledge that the moment is a little bit awkward. And then sort of, again, keep on moving.

WAZWAZ: Yeah. I mean, what if you keep correcting them and they still keep mispronouncing it? Is there ever a place where you just give up? I mean, we all know this. Even Kamala Harris got her name mispronounced at her swearing-in ceremony.

TULSHYAN: Oh, gosh.

WAZWAZ: And she had an entire commercial about pronouncing her name. So is there a point where you're just like, all right, that's it; I'm throwing the towel in; I just can't keep correcting you?

TULSHYAN: You know, I don't know if there's a correct answer to this question in some way. I'm sure there are people who - you know, I remember in school, there were times where others would correct a teacher like, oh, her name is Ruchika, and then the teacher just wouldn't listen, you know, or they wouldn't be able to internalize it or, you know, again, as an educator, sometimes you're just overwhelmed. I get it.

I'm sure there are moments where I just gave up. But the older I get, the less I do. And part of that is not only because I know this is not just for me, but it's also important for the next generation. It's also important for everyone else around me who has an unusual name. And I feel like as I grow older, as I become really - as I get more comfortable in my own skin, and especially because I really want to practice what I preach when it comes to inclusion and belonging in the workplace, what I don't want to do is sort of let that slide and then know that even other people around me will then maybe take that as a cue that names don't matter so much because they do.

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WAZWAZ: I just can't help but think, you know, what is the best way for a person to embrace their name and to have that confidence to love their name and to own it?

TULSHYAN: Gosh, it takes so long, Noor. Like, if I think of my name, if I think of the way I felt about my name, it took so, so long. It - I think part of it, for me, came from having a child whose name is also unique. His name is Veer, which means sort of warrior and courageous in Sanskrit. And I started realizing that, look; if I don't model that level of confidence, that level of, like, yeah, I have an unusual name, and so what? You know, I'm proud of it. It's beautiful. It has a meaning that matters a lot to me. It means interesting in Sanskrit. And so for me, that became part of it, that if I don't model that, then my son's going to grow up with that same sense of shame and discomfort and cringiness and awkwardness and not-belongingness that I have spent so much of my life trying to battle.

WAZWAZ: Have you had to have the conversation with him of what to do when someone mispronounces his name?

TULSHYAN: Not really. So I've told him about the subtleties. I'll say, you know, in school, I've - you know, your friends call you or your teachers call you Ve-er (ph), and it means a lot that - it means a lot to me and it means a lot to our family that you get them to pronounce it the correct way, which is Veer. And so at this moment, it's sort of, you know, all lighthearted and jokes. But, again, I think in time to come, it's going to get more serious.

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WAZWAZ: Ruchika left us with some final thoughts about just how important this conversation is.

TULSHYAN: I do want to say, especially for people who've had their names mispronounced a lot, you know, I really see you. I really hear you. I want to say this as well. I think at this time of immense sort of turmoil and discussion around racism and racial reckoning in our country, I mean, getting people's names right - and especially, you know, we've seen some horrible tragedies recently around the Asian American community - I think it's extremely important to take this as one of those very subtle but extremely important ways to get engaged, to stand up for communities that are nonwhite and largely have faced marginalization both in the United States and then all over the world.

And I think getting - taking that extra moment to pronounce an unusual name correctly or a name that you're not very familiar with correctly is one of those ways that you can really practice anti-racism and practice allyship in the moment. And it's one of those ways that to you may seem, you know, subtle or, you know, you'd rather sort of go out there marching or whatever it is, but this is one of those ways that really makes a difference day to day on creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels like they are part of it and belong and can contribute.

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WAZWAZ: Ruchika, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for all your advice and this insight. We really appreciate it.

TULSHYAN: Thank you so much, Noor. Really enjoyed our conversation today.

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WAZWAZ: For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics. I hosted one the other day about recreating a family recipe, so go check that one out. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, and I sure hope you do, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

This episode was produced by Clare Lombardo, who is also our digital editor, along with Beck Harlan. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. And Clare Marie Schneider is our editorial assistant. I'm Noor Wazwaz. Thank you for listening.

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