I have had my name butchered my entire life not just since Ive lived in the U.S. over the past eight years, but in countries where I worked all over the world including my home country of Singapore. While it made me feel excluded and awkward, it also spurred me to investigate whether having a non-Western name would negatively impact my career. Years ago, I followed up with a hiring manager in Atlanta, who admitted that the hard-to-pronounce name on my resume was a factor in me not receiving a call back for an interview.
I know Im not alone. Arvind Narayanan, a Princeton computer science professor,recently wrote a Twitter threadabout how his name being unrecognized despite his work being highly recognized had tangible impacts on his career progression, including losing out on teaching and job opportunities, being invited to present his work, and being cited in papers.
Learning to pronounce a colleagues name correctly is not just a common courtesy but its an important effort in creating an inclusive workplace, one that emphasizes psychological safety and belonging.
For those wondering, my first name is pronounced Roo-CHEEK-Ah phonetically, quite like how its spelled. The most common mispronunciation I hear in the Western workplace is Roo-SHEEK-ah. For years, I let it slide. I didnt want to make things awkward in a professional setting, plus I had reasoned that it didnt matter anyway. The work at hand was more important than how my name was said, I told myself.
Unfortunately, it did start to impact me, from the internal cringe and visible wince when my name was mispronounced, to wondering if my contributions were valued at all if people couldnt take a moment to correctly learn my name. Worst of all, I agonized over how to correct the situation when someone introduced me to a third party with the wrong pronunciation, and soon, an entire team of people were saying my name incorrectly.
Not enough research has been done on the effect of having your name mispronounced at work, but theres a growing body on how teachers mispronouncing names negatively impacts students. A 2012 study titled Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: RacialMicroaggressions and the K-12 Classrooms found that when students of color had their names mispronounced in the classroom, it affected their social emotional well-being and by extension, harmed their ability to learn. The study also concluded that mispronouncing the names of students of color constituted a racial microaggression because it created shame and disassociation from their culture.
We know having a non-white name can negatively impact your chances of getting a job in Western countries. One study found that resumes with white-sounding names were 28% more likely to get a callback for a job interview. In France, resumes with North African-sounding names were less likely to receive interview opportunities.
In an effort to normalize non-Anglo Saxon names in our workplaces and by extension, to create work cultures where everyone feels included and welcome Ive created a short guide for both the pronouncer and the person whose name is mispronounced.
How to pronounce names correctly
Its important to note that in all these years of having my name mispronounced, its rare that someone is being deliberately facetious by mispronouncing my name; often its equally embarrassing for the other person. Here are some ways to get it right.
Ask the person to pronounce it and actively listen. Rather than try to say a name youre unfamiliar with, ask the person how to pronounce it. Its awkward and embarrassing when people try to soldier on with my name and spend more time trying to correct themselves afterwards. Listen carefully to where the person puts emphasis, and where the inflections are. Repeat after them once or twice, not more. If you know you will interact with them often, make a note on how to phonetically pronounce their name (maybe afterward on their business card). Make an effort to listen intently and ask if youre saying it correctly; Ive pronounced my name correctly multiple times for people, only to have them commit to memory a mispronounced version of it. If you still struggle, there are also a number of websites that have sprung up to help people pronounce names correctly.
Dont make it a big deal. Once youve heard the correct pronunciation, thank the person and move on. Dont spend a long time talking about how unfamiliar you are with their name. I feel more excluded when people try to justify their inability to pronounce it (Ive just never heard that name before and I didnt want to butcher it.), when they launch into a longer conversation about my heritage (Where is that name from? Where do you come from?) or when they talk about their own awkwardness (Im so embarrassed I didnt know how to pronounce that.). If someone has a non-Anglo Saxon name, chances are theyve heard all of the above before, and would rather not draw out the process any longer than necessary.
Observe and practice. Make an effort to hear how someone pronounces their name to other people, even if they just pronounced it for you. If youre introducing someone on stage or in any public forum, write down a note for yourself on how to pronounce it correctly and practice it in private. If you find that youre introducing someone new in a public setting, ask them in advance or ask someone who works with them how to correctly pronounce their name. The memory of the first time I received a professional award will always be tainted by how the emcee butchered my name as they called me up on stage to receive it. I wouldve been delighted if she had clarified the pronunciation in the 10 minutes we were chatting before we went up on stage.
Clarify again. If you meet someone again after a while, its fine to say, Remind me of your name again, or, Remind me how to pronounce your name again, quite like you would if you had forgotten their name. I always prefer clarification over mispronunciation, especially if Im meeting someone for the second time.
Do something when you realize youve been mispronouncing it. Apologize when you get it wrong, as soon as you realize. A good rule of thumb is to say, Im sorry I mispronounced that. Could you please repeat your name for me? If youve known someone for a while, perhaps even a number of years, and you realize youve been mispronouncing their name, operate with humility. You might say: I realize Ive been saying your name wrong all this time. Im so sorry. Could you please say it for me? Then, make a note and practice privately until you get it right.
Be an ally. If you hear someone else mispronouncing a colleagues name when theyre not around, step in and correct them gently, I think its pronounced This is especially helpful if your name is more common; it can be awkward to constantly have to interrupt people, especially if youre already part of an underrepresented minority in the workplace.
Dont be arrogant or flippant. Ive had a number of instances where people say, Ill never get it right can I call you another name? or they refuse to listen when I correct them. I take inspiration from actress Uzo Aduba here, who when she wanted to change her name as a child, was told by her mother: If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.
How to respond when people mispronounce your name
Consider having a phonetic/memorable pronouncer: When I introduce myself, I enunciate Roo-CHEEK-Ah and have recently started putting my hand by my cheek and saying, like your cheek. I realized many English-speakers interpreted my name as Roo-SHEEK-ah even after I correctly pronounced it. Im still unsure why they do this, but I try and get ahead of the error, since its the most common one I encounter. I also have recently added the phonetic pronunciation to my email signature and Twitter bio. When Im going to be interviewed on a podcast or video, or introduced at a public event, I send it to organizers in advance. Ive even started writing the phonetic pronunciation on my name tags when Im at a networking event.
Correct people. I know its awkward to interrupt, and easier to let it slide, but if you do an internal cringe when people frequently mispronounce your name, I urge you to gently correct them. Phrases that have worked for me include, Great to see you again. My name is pronounced Roo-CHEEK-ah, like your cheek. or I wanted to quickly say that my name is pronounced or Ill just repeat my name correctly after theyve mispronounced it. Once they say it correctly, I move on quickly. Not only is it better for you to have your name pronounced correctly, it will hopefully encourage others to also insist on correct pronunciation as well.
After three decades of having my name mispronounced by teachers, friends, managers, colleagues, and strangers, Ive recently become insistent on having it said correctly, even when it means interrupting a client or someone more senior than me. I also respond with the correct spelling when people misspell it by email, and if it happens again two or three times after Ive corrected them by email, I typically stop responding.
One last piece of nuance; the way I pronounce my name, an Indian name derived from Sanskrit, is actually different from the way its pronounced in India (which is Roo-CHICK-ah). Growing up outside of India, I internalized a different pronunciation of name, but its one thats comfortable and familiar to me. So when people try to correct my pronunciation of the way I like to be called, I find it awkward and offensive. If your colleague pronounces their name differently from a version of their name youve heard before, respect how they like to be called. Its like the subtle differences between Sara and Sarah Ive heard people pronounce both names in different ways.
Its always worth noting and remembering how different people prefer their names to be said, even if it requires more effort. Taking time to pronounce names correctly conveys respect and inclusion, and a willingness to treat everyone how you would like to be treated.