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Why getting your colleague's name right matters

Addressing people correctly is not about courtesy but also a mark of respect, empathy and inclusiveness

Taking the effort to pronounce someone’s name the way they want it to be pronounced is the mindful thing to do
Taking the effort to pronounce someone’s name the way they want it to be pronounced is the mindful thing to do (iStockphoto)

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I have heard various bewildering modifications of my name all my life, including Prem, Rem, Ram, Dream, Reems, Cream, RimJhim, Beans, Areem and the most common, Reema. I’ve been made plural, singular, whimsical, a vegetable and more with each of these alterations. Though mildly annoying while growing up, it was later as an adult that I found this frustrating, especially in professional settings, where it made me feel invisible when acquaintances repeatedly got my name wrong. I realise my Arabic-origin name is unusual in India, and people often assume it as the more familiar Reema. My frustration stems from this inability to think beyond the familiar, moulding my name to the speaker’s comfort.

Many people have had their names mispronounced all their lives and become accustomed to shrugging off this carelessness. But names are important to people and their identity. It is a simple courtesy to make an effort to address them correctly. In the workplace and otherwise, this consideration is a mark of respect, empathy and inclusiveness.

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Having your name constantly mispronounced or made fun of can impact people’s confidence and self-worth. “As a child, I hated my name, which is pronounced ‘Joss-lin’, thanks to all the mispronunciations, misspellings and jokes. I would raise my hand to say “present ma’am” even before my name was called out during attendance just to avoid hearing the whole class laugh,” says Delhi-based development sector professional Jocelyn Jose. “Once I hit my mid-20s, I had a newfound love for the uniqueness of my name and am often complimented on how pretty it is. The mispronunciations do not annoy me as much now, but I rarely hear my name as I’m called ‘Jo’ almost universally now, including by everyone at work.” While Jose likes and chooses to be called by her nickname, many people resort to one to make it easier on others.

But it is increasingly unacceptable to be careless with people’s names. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has publicly corrected others about the pronunciation of her name, and celebrities like actors Lupita Nyong’o and Uzo Aduba and American comedian Hasan Minhaj have been unapologetic about correcting mistakes with their names. While it may seem trivial, this indifference contradicts the value placed on attention to detail, being a good listener, respecting individuality and inclusivity in workplaces.

A Harvard Business Review article written by Ruchika Tulshyan, founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm, stressed the importance of pronouncing a coworker’s name correctly to create an atmosphere of belonging and safety. Tulshyan points to the lack of research on the impact of mispronouncing names at work but highlights a 2012 study on teachers in the U.S. mispronouncing the names of students of colour affecting the children’s emotional well-being and, by extension, impacting their ability to learn.

The tendency to make an unfamiliar name understandable by using familiar versions; assume that a person’s name should follow a pattern because of their cultural or ethnic origins; or disregard their preferred pronunciation because of being accustomed to a particular pronunciation can be interpreted as a desire to make people conform to the familiar and acceptable.

“A lot of people, mostly outside of Bengal, my home state, refuse to acknowledge the name, Indira. It’s entirely bewildering to me as to why my name almost always becomes Indrani,” says Indira Basu, a business development professional in Delhi with a global IT and consultancy solutions company. “Why is Indrani easier to grasp than Indira? We even had a PM, who is my namesake.” She often has to correct her name, even in emails. But her main frustration is with erudite, highly qualified professionals who mispronounce her name even after she tries to make it easier to recall (’Indira – like Gandhi!’). “It makes me feel like they just don’t care, lack empathy and are used to so much attention themselves that I am insignificant.”

A name is an aspect of one’s identity. Taking the effort to pronounce someone’s name the way they want it to be pronounced is the mindful thing to do, points out Goa-based independent communications professional Merril Diniz. “For some reason, being from Goa makes people rechristen me ‘Merlyn DeSouza’ with absolute confidence, even if they can see the spelling.”

Dr Asher Jesudoss, too, has a long list of mistaken versions of his name. “My name is Asher Raja Jesudoss. When in primary school in Aurangabad, people called me Raja because they couldn’t pronounce my first name,” says Jesudoss, director of One Direction Skill Solutions, a training and recruitment organisation in Delhi. “While I was a voice and accent trainer in the 2000s, my trainees called me Asser, and many people call me Ashhar or Uh-sher,” says Jesudoss who usually laughs this off.

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Judging people in the workplace by their name is reductive and can potentially hinder their growth and inclusion by assuming their unsuitability for certain tasks and roles. While it may feel uncomfortable, correcting people’s mistakes is important, even if it is the usual unintentional error. For those in the wrong, it is appreciated when an effort is made to pronounce a person’s name correctly, even asking them to repeat it so that you can get it right.

“Names are important and give you a sense of personhood,” says Basu. It seems trivial, but it is these small considerations that can contribute to an inclusive and respectful work culture.

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