Say My Name: Why saying someone's name properly matters

Culture · 20 oct. 2022

You know that joke where a pharmaceutical ad comes with a long disclaimer? It can't just be a simple "here, buy this drug", it has to be followed with a comically long spiel. That's kind of what it's like having to introduce yourself and have to explain how your name is pronounced or correct someone when it's been mispronounced.

That we live and work in such a diverse world is a wonderful thing, but it needs to come with inclusivity. Having one's name constantly mispronounced does not feel inclusive. What does it matter, though? It's just a name, right? Wrong. Your name is your identity, a part of who you are. So to deny someone having their name said properly is akin to denying their true self to exist. And, some might say, it's a form of othering.

I asked some team members how they felt when their name was pronounced wrong.

"It's happened all my life so I'm numb to it. I don't correct people but if I introduce myself I try to say it clearly so they can pick up on the correct pronunciation. In the past I would just say the incorrect version or a nick name to accommodate others, which I don't do anymore. " - Ankur O. (Uh-nk-uu-r), Manager, Support
"I got used to it and sometimes correct them when it happens." - Eseosa I. (Air-so-sah), Scrum Master
"Okay, it is kind of fun to hear multiple version of it." - Jamshedshoh K. (Jam-shed-shoh), Senior Full Stack Developer

Actually, most of the people I talked to said that they were used to it, which would imply it's not a big deal. However, when asked how important it is that their name be said correctly, the answers said differently:

"I was born and raised in Turkey and moved to Canada when I was 18. My family still live in Turkey so my name represents my home. It is important that everyone would respect it and at least try to pronounce it right!" - Ece D. (Ed-jeh), Senior User Experience Designer
"It is important for me because it is part of my identity. I would want to know that I am being referred to during a conversation but if my name is mispronounced I might not even know that I am being called or asked a question." - Bolanle A. (Buh-lahn-lai), Product Manager, Experience Platform & Tools
"I think it's pretty important to me. I don't mind mispronunciation but I will always put in the effort to nicely correct to the proper pronunciation. If it were someone who I speak to often and they continued to mess it up, that would bug me. Names can be intrinsic to who you are as a person, so it is important to always put in the effort to try and get it right." - Triestina S. (Tris-tee-na), Senior Visual Designer
"Very important. As a recent immigrant, I am very conscious about retaining my cultural identity and protecting it. I am always delighted to connect with other members of my diaspora, yet appreciate the uniqueness of my own background. While I understand my written last name seems easy to pronounce, gently correcting people of the proper pronunciation helps to prevent a subtle erosion of my identity and its significance to me." - Samuel Cheam (Sam-yuuhl Ch-ee-am), Manager, My TELUS
"It's gained importance for me as I've gotten older because it's a connection to my cultural background. When I was younger I was just trying to fit in so I tried to anglicize it but later realized that I should wear my name proudly. " - Ankur O.

When I was little, I would listen to my mom tell people that our family name is pronounced "Sow" (it's pronounced "Tz-ow", actually). When I asked her why she told people that, she said it was to make it easier for people. The more I've thought about this, the more I think it's backwards to put the onus on the person with the name that's different to bear the brunt of the challenge to pronounce it.

"As someone with a Francophone name living and working in mostly Anglophone environments, I've lived my whole life with people getting my name wrong.  I go by "Seb" because asking people to pronounce "Sebastien" (not "Sebastian") wasn't worth it.  I like Seb better anyways. My last name is "Barre" but I would guess that 75% of people - including Francophones - who read it, think it's pronounced "Barr-ay" for some reason even though there's no accent on the "e". As a result I've always been really mindful of learning how to pronounce other people's names correctly." - Seb Barre (Seb Bar), Digital Platform Product Lead

Thanks to features on platforms like LinkedIn and Slack, that allow you to provide a phonetic spelling of your name, and record an audio file of you saying it, helping people to say your name right is getting easier and more integrated into daily work life. At TELUS Digital, we consider making the effort to learn someone's name part of the efforts we go through in appreciation of having a diverse group of people with whom to collaborate on a daily basis. We make a conscious effort to get someone's pronouns right, and it's important to us that we get their names right too.

Still not sure how important pronouncing someone's name could be? I asked my co-workers how it feels when someone makes the effort to learn their name:

"Love, respect! I love when people take the time to understand my name and ask for the pronunciation which means they respect me as a person." - Ece
"It helps to create meaningful connection with them." - Lanre A. (Lan-ray), Manager, API Marketplace
"I feel valued as making such effort shows inclusivity and a key component of belonging." - Bolanle
"Happy and impressed. I think it speaks volumes of a person's character to care enough to learn these seemingly minor details of another human being." - Samuel
"Really grateful! I always appreciate it when someone takes the time to learn how to say it correctly." - Ankur
"It feels great! I noticed at TELUS whenever I'm in a meeting with people I haven't met before they always take the time to ask me how I pronounce my name and that is a very nice thing to do." - Triestina
"Awesome! It shows that they care." - Eseosa
"I respect and appreciate it." - Andriy T. (Ahn-dree), Data Cloud Engineer

Bottom line: if you don't know how to pronounce someone's name, ask! Most people respect, appreciate, and are pleasantly surprised when you do. If you have to ask more than once even, it's not a problem because it shows that you care about getting it right. And sometimes getting it right can mean more to someone than you might know...

"I'm named after my grandmother, who is named after the Italian city of Trieste. My great grandparents had visited the city and fell in love with it so much they named their daughter after it. I feel very lucky to be named after my Nonna, who has been such a huge role model in my life. Names are so important, they hold value in ways that not might be obvious. They can hold cultural significance, sentimental significance, signify independence etc. which is why it's always important to ask how people pronounce their names or use tools like the Slack pronunciation / recording features to let people know how your name should be said. It goes a long way!" - Triestina
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Heidi Tsao & Teammates
Senior Strategy Manager
Heidi Tsao is a Senior Strategy Manager on TELUS Digital's People Experience Team. Her mission is to help everyone live their best work lives. She likes soup.