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Guest blog: Pronouncing a name – how hard can it be?

Article by Tina Hughes, director and ethnicity colleague network sponsor at Yorkshire Building Society. First published in Society Matters magazine.

Pronouncing a name - how hard can it be?

It’s likely we can all recall a moment in time when we’ve been unsure how to pronounce the name of someone we’re about to meet for the first time or think we know how to say someone’s name only to be corrected at a later date. It might have felt embarrassing or awkward, so instead of trying it’s easier to avoid using their name altogether.

Imagine if it was your name that was perceived to be hard to say, or if because of your name you feared racial discrimination. Perhaps you can relate, but if not, consider yourself fortunate never to have experienced what it feels like to have people regularly call you by the wrong name; not take the time to understand how you like to be referred to; or have your name anglicised to make it more comfortable for them. People might do this with the best intentions, or to avoid any awkwardness, but the unseen impact can be significant.

Work to do 

My name is generally widely accepted by society, but it’s unacceptable that people still experience the contrary. The devastating effect the mispronunciation of names can have throughout their lives – often starting in childhood – is palpable. Some refer to losing their identity, feeling less significant than others, or being cast as an outsider. Others have given up correcting people who pronounce their name wrong and instead have accepted a totally different name to feel more included. This should never have been, and never should be a solution. 

A name is someone’s identity. It can give a sense of individuality and can often be linked back to ancestors, cultural roots or tradition. It’s a basic entitlement that deserves to be treated with respect. No one should ever have to feel that it takes bravery or courage to be addressed by the name they were given, go by, or want to be known as, to feel a sense of inclusion. 

Getting it right

If you’re unsure how to say someone’s name – ask them. You don’t need to make a fuss, but taking time to understand how they would like it pronounced can make all the difference. It can help to break down any perceived barriers and allow them to feel valued and equal. 

Learning to spell someone’s name phonetically could also help, and as part of our commitment to create an inclusive culture we’ve launched an initiative that does just that.

The importance of pronouncing names correctly has been at the forefront of our ethnicity colleague network’s work this year. As a result, we’ve made a small change to enable colleagues to spell their names phonetically which we hope will make a big difference to those who have long struggled to have their names accepted. 

Of course, the mispronunciation of names isn’t exclusive to the workplace – it’s something people from all walks of life, heritage and backgrounds quietly struggle with socially too. But as organisations together, we can be a driving force for change, and as responsible employers, we can help individuals to speak on a topic that has for too long been silenced for fear of prejudice or embarrassment. 

Be an ally, not an enemy, and start calling people by their true name today. 

First out more:

YBS Inclusion & Diversity 

This article was first published in Society Matters magazine