Say my name: The importance of name pronunciation
Names matter, and the way we treat them has impact. Research shows that our brains ‘light up” when we hear our name, while mispronunciation can lead to feelings of isolation and alienation.
The first step in creating an inclusive workplace culture is learning your colleagues' names.
Your name, your identity
“My name is Turkish and it means ‘ear of wheat.’ It is part of who I am,” says Dr. Başak Çoruh [Bah-SHOCK Cha-ROO], associate professor (Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine).
She says people commonly mispronounce her name. “It doesn’t bother me at all when this happens at a first attempt. I have special characters in my name that are unfamiliar, so I don’t expect anyone to know how to pronounce my name correctly from just looking at it.”
"My name is a part of my identity," says Dr. Geetanjali Chander [Gee (hard G, long ee) -th ah n - j uh - lee], professor and head of the Division of General Internal Medicine.
She was named after a book by Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gita means song, Anjali means collection/ bouquet/ offering. "My parents chose to spell it Geetanjali as opposed to Gita because of the long E sound,” she says. "I have always taken pride in the fact that I was named after this book."
According to Race Equality Matters, 73% of people have had their name mispronounced, and 43% said it made them feel disrespected, 30% found it upsetting and 21% said it made them feel they didn't belong.
They created the #MyNameIs campaign to encourage people to raise awareness by simply introducing phonetic spellings as standard practice.
“It can be frustrating to have folks mispronounce my name after I’ve shared the pronunciation several times,” says Çoruh.
Department Chair Dr. Barbara Jung [Yoong]'s name is not uncommon in Germany. How often is it mispronounced? "Always, and I am used to it," she says. "It is actually ok, I do not expect people to know German."
She was often asked if she is related to the psychologist Carl Jung. “But that reading must have dropped off the high school reading requirement as fewer people ask. I am not related and while well-meaning, I do not get much out of explaining that.”
Pronouncing names correctly
Treat a name like any other part of someone’s identity, and treat it with respect. It is important not to make a joke, or try to shorten or change the name.
"I'm sometimes surprised when people say 'that’s too hard, can I just call you B?'" says Çoruh. "This is often from people in the medical field who have learned how to pronounce far more complicated words, like lymphangioleiomyomatosis."
“When individuals look at my name and ask me if I have a nickname, I say no, but I can walk you through how to say my name,” says Chander. “When individuals look at my name and say, ‘I’m just going to call you G,’ I feel disrespected and ask them to please use my full name.”
Do not assume
Also, don’t make assumptions about the origin of a name, or about the pronunciation. Jung says that because of her name, people assume she is Korean (her name is also the second most common Korean name). "Because of that, I have experienced disappointment at not being Korean by patients who had picked me for that reason, but also have had experience with anti- Asian sentiments."
Allow people to introduce themselves and listen closely to how they pronounce their name. Ask them to repeat it if necessary, and say their name out loud to show your intention to pronounce it correctly.
“I always ask individuals, and then I try and say it a few times. I also ask them to correct me if I say it wrong,” says Chander.
Normalize using names in daily interactions and caring about the correct pronunciation.
"Trying to correctly pronounce someone’s name is a way to show respect," says Çoruh.
"If people try to say my name, I am grateful, even if they mispronounce it, says Chander. "If they ask me how to pronounce my name, I am grateful. I have wondered why I ‘feel grateful’ when others take accurate pronunciation of their name for granted. When individuals avoid saying my name because they are worried about mispronouncing it, I wonder why they cannot just ask me how to say it."
Lead by example
If you are a leader in a position of power, it is crucial that you correctly pronounce names, as others will follow your lead, and may not feel empowered to correct you if you mispronounce a name.
If possible, be prepared in advance of an interaction by learning, or attempting to learn the correct pronunciation of a name using online tools, asking the person directly, or asking someone else who you think may know the correct name pronunciation.
"I sometimes write it out phonetically for myself while learning someone’s name," says Çoruh. "The Name Coach app has also been great as I can listen to the correct pronunciation of someone's name and practice."
Dr. Genevieve Pagalilauan [Puh-Golly-Lau-en], associate professor (General Internal Medicine) writes down the phonetic spelling of a name to help remember. For patients, she uses the ‘sticky note’ function on the patient chart.
The origin of her name is indigenous Filipino. It is less common, as many Filipino names are Spanish origin, given the history of colonialism, she says.
She is very accustomed to people mispronouncing her name and is not offended. "If it is a patient or colleague I mostly am empathetic to their worry or concern that they are not pronouncing my name correctly."
If you overhear someone pronounce a name incorrectly, gently let them know the correct pronunciation.
How to help people pronounce your name
Pronounce your name phonetically and repeat it in a back-and forth-exchange until it is pronounced correctly. "I usually try to introduce myself first to take pressure off of others," says Çoruh.
Offer tips or guidance
It may be helpful to offer some tips, like "it rhymes with ___" to help people remember.
To help people learn her name, Pagalilauan provides a primer on how to say it. For patients, she usually gives them an option on how to address her so they feel comfortable, "Dr. P or Dr. Genevieve."
Consider adding a name badge, and/or phonetic spelling of your name to your email signature, zoom, or biography.
The name badge tool allows you to record the pronunciation of your name and imbed the audio file to your email signature.
The Names & Pronunciations Initiative, led by UW School of Medicine student Sudiptho (suh-dip-doe) R. Paul, offers free custom tags with written phonetic name pronunciation to UW Medicine personnel.
Creating a culture of correct pronunciation
Using correct names is a crucial part of creating an inclusive workplace culture.
We can all help by including the importance of names in our EDI trainings, and including phonetic spellings/ pronunciation guides, and name pronunciation audio tools in our email signatures and in profiles.
Learn more about name origins and pronunciations, and find tutorials on how to pronounce names and create phonetic spellings or audio recordings of your name on our website.