An easy way to show someone respect and make a great first impression is to address them by their name — not by the name that is easiest for you to learn but by their given or preferred name.
Imagine you’re meeting with your classmates for the first time via Zoom to work on a project. A student introduces herself to the group and says, “Hello, I’m Rutuja.” She notices right away that some are having a hard time remembering her name and others can’t seem to pronounce it correctly. Rutuja smiles, and makes light of it, saying, “Just call me Ruth; it’s easier for you to say.” This comes as a relief to other group members, who immediately oblige, calling her Ruth throughout the project.
Were the students wrong to call Rutuja what she asked to be called? No, they weren’t. But imagine the message that would have been conveyed to her if someone said, “That isn’t a name that I’ve heard before, so I might pronounce it incorrectly at first, but I’d like for you to help me learn it.” That would have said to Rutuja, “I see you, and I care enough to want to honor who you are.”
Sure, it was Rutuja’s idea for the group to call her “Ruth,” but let’s understand what may have prompted her to do that. Imagine if each time you meet someone and tell them your name, they look at you with a puzzled look on their face. Or you tell them your name and rather than attempt to learn it, they very noticeably just avoid addressing you. Or they decide it’s too hard to remember, so they tell you, “I’m just going to call you ________” and they make up something catchier. In an effort to make things easier, Rutuja allowed people to call her by the name that makes them feel most comfortable, sacrificing her own identity.
When you take the time to learn the correct pronunciation of someone’s name and you address them as such, they may be a little surprised because people often do what is easiest for them. Your effort will stand out and make that person feel like they belong.
Think about your own name and what it represents. You may be named after a beloved relative or a celebrity, or perhaps your name holds a sentimental value. Imagine being in a setting where your name is viewed as unusual or difficult to pronounce. Would it be offensive if others chose not to acknowledge you by your given name? Would you readily allow a name of no significance to be assigned to you? Would you willingly assume a new identity to please others?
This might be something you’ve never given much thought to, but it is not an uncommon occurrence in academic, work, and social settings. I hope I’ve given you something to consider through a different lens.
- Explore this topic more by watching a fifteen-minute TEDx talk — “Getting it right; why pronouncing names correctly matters” by Gerardo Ochoa
- Learn more about microaggressions and how to avoid them — Race or Identity Microaggressions infographic
- Read a recent blog post — How to Respond If You’ve Committed a Microaggression