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?