Earlier this year, Thandiwe Newton announced she was changing the spelling of her name back to its original after a misspelling in the credits of a movie resulted in it being anglicised for three decades.
For Thandiwe her name, meaning ‘beloved’, is representative of her maternal Zimbabwean heritage.
Our name is part of our identity and often symbolic of our culture and historical or familial connections. Indonesia, Nigeria, Ireland, Greece and India are just a few countries with naming traditions that many still choose to honour, and baby naming ceremonies are found in almost every religious affiliation.
Keen to understand the current scale of the apparent disregard society has for names we ran a Twitter poll.
We found more than a third of our respondents, 37% in fact, have changed or abbreviated their name to make it ‘easier’ for others, and regularly experience mispronunciations or misspellings.
One responder said: “Changing our names also mean changing the meaning of our names which we shouldn’t have to do…people should make the effort to learn to pronounce it correctly. Instead of being celebrated, too often names are creating barriers to inclusion.”
The consequence of getting it wrong
Getting it wrong once is acceptable, but if you have been corrected it is important to get it right next time. Repeatedly mispronouncing someone’s name, or choosing to shorten it without permission, is a micro-behaviour that can make people feel dismissed and undervalued.
Micro-inequities can manifest in many ways, but in recent times a prevalence of virtual meetings has meant that instead of body language or hand gestures, we rely more on names to involve people.
If others lack confidence to pronounce a name, it can impact inclusion.
We should all now be familiar with the phenomenon of unconscious bias, where our brain draws on a library of millions of experiences to create a preference for or against one thing or another.
Names are one of an endless list of triggers that can work for or against us. It is well-documented, for example, how a name can affect a person’s chances of employment.
Studies as recent as 2019 show that on average ethnic minorities must submit 60% more applications than comparable white counterparts before they are shortlisted for interview.
Furthermore, in a shocking revelation earlier this year, it was reported that Pontins distributed among its employees a list of surnames, including Gallagher, O’Donnell, McGuiness, and Murphy that it considered “undesirable guests”. Staff refused bookings made by some people with an Irish accent or surname.
Curiosity did not kill the cat
If instead of being fearful of what is different, or scared of getting it wrong, foster a greater sense of curiosity.
Paula Whelan, head of diversity & inclusion at RightTrack Learning said: “Most people welcome dialogue about their name so if it is unfamiliar to you, just ask.
“Ask how to pronounce it, how to spell it, what they would prefer to be known as, or where the name originates. It will show interest in the other, build rapport and help people to feel respected.
“Over time, as we learn about the background of names it will fill in the gaps in our knowledge, override stereotypes and assumptions and give us a better understanding for future interactions.”
- If you are lucky enough to not experience challenging interactions because of your name, remember this is important to those that do. Instead of focusing on perceived awkwardness or embarrassment of getting it wrong, give it a go anyway. The more you do, the less self-conscious you will feel next time.
- Be conscious of the language you use. Instead of saying it’s a hard name to pronounce try explaining that the name isn’t familiar so you might need help with the pronunciation.
- If you see an unfamiliar name, ask Google to pronounce and write it down phonetically to help you remember next time.
- Remember banter is about good humour and fun but only when everyone is enjoying the joke. Banter cannot be excused if the behaviour is unwanted. If the banter is linked with race or ethnicity, under the Equality Act this is discrimination and can have serious consequences.
- Do not ask where someone is from just because they have an unfamiliar name. There is a good chance they were born in the UK. Instead, you could ask them to tell you more about their name so instead of relying on assumptions, you learn more about them.
- Facilitate an activity with your team to share the meaning or origins of all your names to remind others of their importance.
- If you have dyslexia or another hidden disability that makes it difficult for you to remember names, share this with the other person so they understand why you might make mistakes.
- Speak up and speak out if you hear someone mispronouncing a name. Correcting others is exhausting for those on the receiving end so having someone else supporting them will help to drive change.
- Remember, this doesn’t stop at names: accents, qualifications, weight, tattoos, hair colour and many other aspects of a person can trigger judgement. Be open minded and curious about everyone; it’s one of the best ways to foster inclusion.