Typically within the first few minutes of meeting someone new, you say your name and they say theirs (and hopefully, you remember it!).
“A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” – Dale Carnegie.
A person’s name is also the greatest connection to their identity. Believe it or not, common names have seen a substantial decrease since the 1950s. We are now hearing more unique names (or seeing common names with unique spellings), unusual names, cultural names, double-barrelled first names, initials being used as names, or completely original names. There is a growing cultural shift towards individualism and standing out.
What if you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name?
There will of course be scenarios when you haven’t heard a person’s name before. Maybe you’re meeting them for the first time and have only seen their name on paper. What do you do if you’re unsure of how to pronounce it? The answer to this is simpler than you might think.
If you don’t know how to say someone’s name, just ask! In fact, as soon as you see the name, if you feel the slightest inkling that you might butcher it, ask the person how to pronounce it, and really listen.
Trust me, it’s easier to ask the person how to pronounce their name than it is for you to awkwardly stumble through it. It’s uncomfortable for both parties, and you’ll for sure notice them wincing if you mispronounce it. When someone tells you how to pronounce their name, repeat it back to them. It’s totally ok when you see them again to say, “Your name is Noelle, right?”
What if someone mispronounces your name?
Now, what if you’re on the receiving end of someone saying your name wrong? I’ve been here. First I question if I was sure I heard them say it incorrectly, then I think, “Well, too much time has passed in the conversation for me to correct them, I’ll just let it go.”
The next thing I know, months have passed, and they are still saying my name wrong, and everyone they’ve introduced me to is saying my name wrong. It spirals so quickly!
There are some things you can do to get ahead of this. You can actually add a phonetic spelling of your name to your email signature or LinkedIn profile (as well as other social media profiles). However, if you have found yourself in a situation where you are being called the wrong name, the best approach is to be direct. You can say something along the line of “Oh I should’ve told you earlier, but my name is pronounced….” or “Oh hey, my name is actually pronounced ….” You can have a go-to phrase locked and loaded, so it rolls off your tongue effortlessly. Once you’ve corrected them, move on! There’s no need to dwell on the mistake.
And don’t fret if you’ve let someone mispronounce your name a few times. It’s never too late to course-correct. Try saying something along the lines of “I noticed that you’ve been calling me Julia. In fact, it’s Julia, you say it with a little bit of an H in front, Julia.” And just like that, you’re done! If it happens again, bring it up again.
Tips on Names and Leadership
According to our CEO, Jess Watson, there are also a few other important rules to mention here in this “what’s in a name” realm.
- Don’t automatically assign someone a nickname. If they introduce themselves as Charles, don’t one day call them Charlie. If they introduce themselves as Alexandra, don’t take it upon yourself to shorten it to Alex. Additionally, don’t ask someone if they have a nickname just because you’re having trouble pronouncing their name.
- Call people what they prefer to be called. If their first name is Jennifer, but they go by their middle name Brooke, call them Brooke. If their name is Elizabeth, but they go by just E, call them that. Never say “that’s not your real name”. In fact, if you met them with one name and at some point throughout your professional relationship they changed it and let you know, absolutely use the current name.
- Be open to being corrected. “Recently in a Zoom meeting,” Jessica recalls, “I read someone’s name as it was spelled on their screen, Anna, and she then corrected me that it was actually pronounced Ah-na. I immediately said ‘thank you for correcting me,’ and followed that with re-pronouncing her name the way she said it.” These are teaching moments, where it’s okay to get something wrong the first time, and really important to bring awareness to getting it right going forward.
- Make names an engaging thing to learn about. With the majority of our meetings happening virtually these days, we’ve been using icebreaker questions for our team meetings. It helps to get us started and creates a fun way to get to know each other better. You can do this and have your icebreaker question be “what’s the story behind your name?” If you’re not having virtual meetings these days, this question can also be asked as part of an icebreaker series in Slack or your intranet of choice.
Learning to pronounce someone’s name correctly is more than common courtesy. It truly is an important effort in creating an inclusive workplace where everyone belongs.