I’m naming names

By Catherine Welborn

One of my biggest communication pet peeves has nothing to do with grammar or any of the nitpicky topics we usually cover. I can’t stand it when people refuse to learn others’ names, especially when those names are foreign, uncommon or difficult to pronounce.

Remembering and using someone’s name is an important sign of respect in the workplace, but too often people make excuses for the “difficult” names: “I’m sorry, I’ll never remember that. Do you have a nickname?” or “That girl in accounting with the long name, you know, L-something …”

When I read Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart in high school I barely paid attention to the names. As far as I was concerned, the main character was “O,” his son was “N,” his adopted son was “I” and so on.

In a college class, however, the teacher’s assistant who led our discussions made it clear that was unacceptable. We were expected to refer to them as Okonkwo, Nwoye and Ikemefuna. He explained that relying on initials, aside from being a risky habit (what if there are two “M” characters?), was also disrespectful and dehumanizing. And since one of Achebe’s main goals in writing the novel was to humanize Africans for Western readers, referring to his characters by their initials was a metaphorical slap in his face.

I think of that lesson every time I see an intimidating name in a book or on a roster. It’s so tempting to abbreviate, nick name or even avoid speaking it altogether, but I won’t let myself take those easy outs.

I’ve realized that the importance of showing respect in that way outweighs the potential embarrassment of botching a pronunciation—which has happened to me plenty of times, by the way. In my experience, people with less common names are very forgiving of errors and appreciative of effort.

Do you have an unusual or difficult-to-pronounce name? How do people usually respond to it? How would you prefer them to respond?

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4 responses to “I’m naming names

  1. Lauren Methena

    What a great point! I actually have fun with people’s last names. I make it into a little game. I like to try to guess what the country of origin is…and I’m usually close, if not dead on. It impresses people AND even if I’m wrong, it opens up a lot of conversation. People like to talk about their names and where they came from, and they’re pleased that you noticed and took the time to find out more about them.

    • Catherine Welborn

      Lauren, I really like that idea! I don’t know if I’d be correct as often as you are, but I think most people will still be happy to explain the story of their name. That’s a great way to engage people!

  2. My first name is ‘Jan’, and I’m male. My name doesn’t rhyme with ‘Anne’, but it also isn’t quite the European version with a soft ‘J’ (i.e., ‘Yan’). I have a Chinese mother and a Polish father, so my name is a hybrid, and is pronounced with the European ‘a’ sound in the middle, but with a hard ‘J’ at the beginning.

    Basically, I just tell people to call me ‘Jon’. Most North American English speakers can’t even hear the difference between the way it’s supposed to be pronounced and ‘Jon’, so I leave it at that. People that have Chinese or a European language as a first language usually get it right. It’s just one of those things. As long as people get it mostly correct, I don’t worry about it. The version that rhymes with ‘Anne’ gets on my nerves, but I mostly shrug it off.

    The way that it’s spelled really throws people off. They’re so used to that set of letters sounding a certain way that they’ll often get my name wrong for weeks before they get to saying it right (or close to right).

    • Catherine Welborn

      Jan, Thanks for joining the discussion! I’d really like to hear the correct pronunciation of your name, just because I’m curious about whether I’d be able to distinguish between it and “Jon.”

      I find the differences in spelling and recognized/recognizable sounds among different cultures fascinating. A while back I watched a documentary about languange that said that if you’re not exposed to some sounds before a certain age, it’s (almost?) impossible to learn to recognize them when you’re older. That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult for Westerners to learn Eastern languages. That phenomenon doesn’t explain why I have so much difficulty in recognizing the difference between “Aaron” and “Erin” though; that one has always baffled me.

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