Photo by Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection
Almost everyone has had their name mispronounced at some point. If you have, you know it's not a great feeling. Names are important to us. They're connected to our identities, and — particularly if your name comes from another language or country — our cultures, too.
When you meet a new person, you may have trouble remembering how to pronounce their name. Maybe you didn't hear it fully the first time, or you've only seen their name written and never heard it out loud. Regardless, you should put in the effort to pronounce the name correctly. It shows the person that you care and are willing to put in the effort. It also sets a great foundation for your relationship with the person, in a personal or professional setting.
If you're having trouble pronouncing someone's name, here's what you can do.
The best way to clarify how to pronounce a name is to go straight to the source and ask the person how to say their name. It's okay to be straightforward about it. Most people appreciate you taking the time and consideration to get it right. It's better to do so sooner rather than later. When meeting for a person for the first time, if you feel like you don't have a great grasp on how to pronounce their name, politely ask them to repeat it. It might feel a bit awkward, but it will establish an open and honest relationship up front, and save you the uncomfortable situation of potentially mispronouncing the name later or guessing incorrectly at the pronunciation.
Look at the way the name is written. Whether you have an interview coming up with the person, or if you're on an office email chain, find somewhere the name is written or typed and try and sound it out. Is it similarly spelled to a name you know? Does it have similar components? Look for clues anywhere you can. Obviously, name pronunciations are much more subjective than those of words in the dictionary, so it might be pronounced different than the way it looks. Nevertheless, this is a good place to start.
Do some research. See if you can find a video clip of the person online, from an interview or YouTube video, in which they introduce themselves or are introduced by someone else. However, this isn't always easy; not everyone has clips like this published, and they can be hard to find. You can also search the name and see if there is a recording or phonetic spelling of someone saying that name. Keep in mind that not all people with the same spelling of a name pronounce it the same way, but it's definitely a good starting point. There are some websites dedicated to cataloging name pronunciations that can be a big help.
If you have a mutual friend or coworker with the person whose name you're having trouble pronouncing, ask for their help! Explain the situation, and why you're trying to clarify (i.e. you have an interview/meeting coming up with the person and want to be sure you address them correctly, etc.). Most everyone knows what it's like to both have their name mispronounced and accidentally mispronounce someone else's name, so they'll likely be happy to help.
There are definitely wrong ways to handle the situation of mispronouncing a name. Avoid these approaches to ensure you don't offend the person in question or make the situation worse, jeopardizing your relationship.
People can be particular about what they like to be called — and rightfully so. Our names are very personal to us. You shouldn't assume a nickname for a person unless they give you express permission to call them something different than the name they used when introducing themselves. It's presumptive, and when it comes from a place of uncertainty around how to pronounce their full name, it can be transparent and awkward. If this is someone you just met, calling them a nickname can be uncomfortable and put them off, which is not what you want at the start of a new relationship with a person, especially a professional one.
People often joke from a place of discomfort, so there may be an impulse to make jokes about the name you are unsure about pronouncing. However, this is not how you should go about solving the issue. Joking about a name will only come off as rude, annoying or inconsiderate and ultimately put you in a worse position than before.
Continuing to mispronounce a person's name once you know you're not saying it correctly often comes off as disrespectful and careless. It shows you aren't willing to put forth the time or effort to get it right. Everyone has slip-ups from time to time, but if you're aware of your mistake and continue to make it, it shows you are not willing to prioritize addressing people correctly, which will not be received well.
The real first step to pronouncing a person's name correctly is, well, remembering their name. If you're the kind of person who forgets a person's name as soon as you hear it when making introductions – join the club. Remembering new names is a polarizing ability — you're likely either really good at it or pretty terrible. Our brains are complicated, and we are often processing a lot of information at once. There's a bunch of factors that go into the phenomenon of forgetting names so quickly. Thankfully, there are tips and tricks you can use to hone your ability and train your brain to get better at this skill.
Repetition is key to remembering, and it also makes your brain focus on the name actively for longer. Make a point to repeat the person's name at least twice when you meet them. You can be casual about it and find ways to fit it into the conversation smoothly.
“Hi, I’m Rosie!”
“Hi, Rosie. I’m…”
“So Rosie, (what brings you here, drew you to this event, when did you start working with, etc.)?”
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Rosie. Take care!”
When you hear a person's name for the first time, try to connect their name with something or someone you already know. It's helpful if this process involves visualization.
If the person has the same name of a friend of yours, associate them with that person, and think of the person as you repeat the name. You can also do a word association of sorts. If the person's name is Thomas, and that makes you think of Thomas the Tank Engine, and that makes you think of trains, trains can be your visual aid. It's more about going through the process than the materials you use. Making your brain take extra steps is what counts when it comes to remembering later.
When learning names and how they're pronounced, there are many strategies you can take to make it easier. To some extent, it's a skill, and it will improve with practice. Be kind to yourself and know that it happens to everyone, but remember the appropriate ways to go about solving the problem. Use the tools at your disposal, and above all, be respectful and intentional.
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