Dear Sahaj: My family and I immigrated to the U.S.A. more than 30 years ago. We’ve made a conscious effort to use American pronunciation when conversing in English, especially when it comes to names of friends and co-workers. Much to my annoyance, that is not reciprocated by many of those with whom we interact. Even those we’ve known for decades still mispronounce or misspell names of some of my family and mine. I’ve tried to gently correct them by using the name in our conversation and enunciating it clearly. I’m fed up. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I’m tired of putting up with the lack of the same from others. I don’t care if a server, barista or other fleeting acquaintance mispronounces one of our names, but it hurts and feels disrespectful when a longtime friend or co-worker does. How do we navigate this with our personal and professional friendships/relationships? What would you advise?
— Fed Up
Fed Up: As someone with a “difficult” name to pronounce, I empathize with your situation. It makes sense that you feel devalued and disrespected when others continuously mispronounce your name.
It might seem like a small thing to many, but in fact, when others continuously mispronounce someone’s name, or assign a nickname for their own ease, it’s a name-based microaggression. And like all microaggressions, this can take a toll on your self-esteem, making you feel devalued or unworthy or like you need to compromise parts of yourself.
Our names are an extension of our identities and root us in our family cultures and histories. For many, they serve as a core representation of where we are from. Names hold meaning, pride, strength and courage, and they deserve to be honored.
It may not be purposeful for others to mispronounce your name; it can take time and practice to say words or names that are not used in someone’s native language. However, from your letter, these folks have done this for an extended amount of time. And while it sounds like you’ve tried a nonconfrontational way to address this, I would suggest having a more direct conversation one-on-one with people.
You can decide who is worthy of this conversation, and it may feel countercultural to be direct, but by doing so, you leave little room for the other person to mishear or ignore what you’re saying.
If you need starting points, here are a few scripts:
- I wanted to take a second to chat with you because you are still incorrectly saying my name. This makes me feel disrespected, and I was wondering if we could take some time to practice it so you can get the pronunciation correct?
- I’ve noticed that you are still mispronouncing my name, so I wanted to give you a phonetic spelling that might help you say it correctly.
- I wanted to take a minute to address something that has been hurtful to me. I’ve noticed that you keep misspelling my name, and it would mean a lot if you could be more intentional about spelling it correctly from now on.
You may want to consider sharing more on the meaning or history of your name, to contextualize its importance to you and to educate others. Furthermore, you can discuss this issue with others who support you and ask them to serve as allies when your name is mispronounced or misspelled. Bringing in a third party may be especially helpful when the constant mispronunciation is from someone who holds power or privilege, making it more difficult for you to speak up.
I have to acknowledge that if someone still refuses to say your name correctly after you have a direct conversation about it, you may need firmer boundaries around how much (if at all) you engage with this person. Having consequences for those disrespecting you will allow you to retain self-respect and can show you which relationships are worth investing in.
You are worthy of respect, and others saying your name correctly is the bare minimum for anyone who wants to have a meaningful relationship with you.