Pronouncing someone’s name correctly can make them feel respected, valued, and seen. Not only is it a major sign of respect, but it’s also the first step in creating an inclusive workplace. Pronouncing names correctly is "one of those ways that you can really practice anti-racism and practice allyship in the moment," according to Ruchika Tulshyan, the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm. She explains that it's "one of those very subtle but extremely important ways to get engaged and really stand up...for communities that are nonwhite and largely have faced marginalization." As we focus more on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and in society as a whole, name pronunciation is a major issue to address.
Here, we’ll take a look at why pronouncing names correctly matters, what to do when you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name, and what to do when someone pronounces your name wrong.
Why pronouncing names correctly matters
Name mispronunciation is an issue that runs rampant in the workplace—so much so that LinkedIn has added a feature that allows users to upload a clickable audio recording so other users can hear how their name is pronounced.
For example, in 2019, Arvind Narayanan, a Princeton computer science professor, posted a Twitter thread explaining that his academic work was highly visible and recognizable, yet his name was not. Narayanan was no stranger to jokes and misspelled name tags, and the mispronunciation and neglect all together of his name began to have a tangible impact on his career. He lost out on teaching opportunities, invitations to speaking events, and citations in academic papers all because no one took the time to learn his name.
Baseline lesson: Learning someone’s name and remembering how to pronounce it correctly matters. It’s the bare minimum when building an inclusive work environment. For the pronouncee, it means taking a few more seconds out of your day to remember a few letters. For the person with that name, it’s the difference between career advancement opportunities and the loss of professional recognition.
And although name pronunciation is important for everyone, it’s especially important for BIPOC and minority employees. For people of color, name mispronunciation is yet another microaggression. When people refuse to pronounce your name correctly, it can feel like your identity and right to belong in the workplace are being erased. It can be painful and exhausting, especially if you’re already subjected to other forms of discrimination based on your identity.
Linguist Jennifer Dorman explains how pronouncing someone’s name incorrectly is a form of oppression called linguicism. “Systemically, people of color and different ethnicities in societies across the world have been subjected to linguistic discrimination,” she says. “Particularly when applying for jobs, educational courses, or anything that must be screened by white-dominant societies, in which white people and European-sounding names are more systematically privileged.”
What to do if you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name
So, say you’re about to introduce a new hire to a room full of senior executives, but you don’t know how to pronounce the hire’s name. How do you go about introducing them without creating an extremely awkward and uncomfortable blunder? Is it better to try first and then ask to be corrected?
Well, if you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name, just ask. It’s that simple.
Examples of how to ask someone how to pronounce their name in different situations:
“Hey! I’m so glad you’re joining the team here. I’ve seen some of your previous design work on LinkedIn, and I’m a huge fan. I want to make sure I’m pronouncing your name correctly—can you please pronounce it for me so I can learn the proper way?”
“Hi, I’m Rebecca. I believe I’ve seen you in some of the previous virtual writing networking events. If you don’t mind, how do you pronounce your name? I’d love to introduce you to some of my colleagues who would be really interested in reading your pieces.”
“Hi there, I love your work. Would you mind pronouncing your name for me? I want to make sure I get it right so I can refer you to other agencies looking to hire talented freelancers.”
More tips on how to be respectful when learning how to pronounce someone’s name correctly:
Research their name. Sites like pronouncenames.com and YouTube often have guides and videos on how to pronounce names phonetically. If you see the name of a new colleague and are unsure how to pronounce it, check out these resources before you meet them to begin familiarizing yourself with the pronunciation. But remember, this is just a starting point—don’t assume this is the end-all-be-all correct pronunciation.
State how important correct pronunciation is to you. When meeting someone new, you can be honest and let them know it might take you a few tries to get their name right but that learning the pronunciation is of utmost importance for you.
Practice your pronunciation. The age-old idiom “practice makes perfect” rings true here. After you hear someone pronounce their name, write it down phonetically in your work journal or in your phone notes and take the time to learn it and practice. Do the work of committing the correct pronunciation to your memory.
If you’ve ever pronounced a name wrongly in the past—whether it was once or multiple times—it’s never too late to come to terms with your mistakes, hold yourself accountable, and commit to growth. Chances are, the person on the receiving end will appreciate your effort in re-learning their name. Remember that it’s not someone else’s job to correct you, it’s your job to do your homework to learn as part of being an anti-racist and inclusive coworker.
What to do when someone mispronounces your name
What do you do if someone consistently mispronounces your name despite being corrected numerous times? Or someone who insists on giving you a new, more Western or Anglo nickname? First off, this is extremely inappropriate. It’s incredibly inconsiderate and disrespectful, and it signals that you aren’t worth the effort of learning a name.
Yet, suppressing the urge to correct the pronunciation of your name can be a survival strategy and coping mechanism for BIPOC employees. You might feel like you have to sacrifice your name, an integral part of your identity, in order to protect your psychological safety and ability to fit in at work, and it shouldn’t be that way.
The bottom line is that you have every right to correct the pronunciation of your name. Even if someone has been mispronouncing your name for years, it’s never too late to correct them. There’s no need to be fearful about creating an awkward situation in the workplace—correct pronunciation of your name matters to your worth and sense of belonging. You should never feel like you have to compromise on your identity in order to accommodate someone else’s comfort.
It doesn’t have to be a long conversation. You can directly correct someone by saying:
“My name is actually pronounced like this: ____. Thanks!”
And if you don’t want to draw attention to the fact that someone has been mispronouncing your name, you don’t have to. If that’s the route you choose, you can simply say, “I’d prefer it if you called me _____.” This allows you to request the correct pronunciation of your name without explicitly calling out their previous errors.
Going forward, let’s all commit to treating everyone with respect, being active bystanders when we witness mispronunciation, and making time to learn the names of all of our colleagues.