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We’ve all experienced the awkwardness of a name that’s difficult to pronounce. Whether you’re trying to read from a name badge at a networking event, announcing award recipients at a special ceremony or taking the role on the first day of class, the embarrassment is real.
Now imagine it’s your name that’s continually mispronounced. Every time you’re in a new class or workplace, it’s mangled – badly. When the barista calls out your coffee order, your name is weirdly anglicised. Some people ask if they can call you by a nickname they find easier to pronounce. Others remark your name is ‘unusual’ and ask after its origin.
These are not merely minor annoyances. In multicultural countries like Australia, name-related difficulties can have serious consequences for identity and belonging.
‘Your name is a large part of your identity,’ says Lisa Loney, manager of gender equity, inclusion and access at Deakin’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion. ‘It’s so much a part of who you are that it can be really offensive when people get it wrong or don’t value trying to get it right.’
Here are her tips on learning how to pronounce names correctly to help build a more inclusive Australia.
Pronounce names incorrectly and you can send the message that people are an addendum to the norm. That their name is a sign of difference, of being an outsider. That they must work harder to provide social proof that they belong – even if you support and encourage cultural diversity most of the time.
‘So often in society people feel excluded because of their personal attributes,’ Loney says. ‘If someone is from a culturally diverse background and they have a name that is unfamiliar, and it continually gets mispronounced, it just feeds into that sense of exclusion, and it also speaks to a lack of respect.’
Mispronouncing someone’s name can also affect their prospects at university or work as well as their mental health. ‘By avoiding talking to someone because you don’t want to get their name wrong, you’re excluding them from the meeting or class,’ Loney says.
‘And there’s some real mental health and wellbeing ramifications because people are unable to establish human connection. They might think, “I don’t feel like I belong here”, “I can’t contribute” or “I feel as though I’m being ignored and my contributions aren’t valuable.”’
'It's so much a part of who you are that it can be really offensive when people get it wrong or don't value trying to get it right.'
Division of Diversity and Inclusion, Deakin University
When you’re unsure how to pronounce names, the most important thing you can do is ask – but try not to make a spectacle of it. ‘Just say, “Would you mind pronouncing your name for me so I can get it right,”’ Loney says.
She says listening carefully and writing the name down phonetically in your own spelling can help to ensure you remember it correctly. ‘Particularly if it’s somebody in a work or social context that you know you’re going to meet regularly, and especially if it’s their first name, writing it down phonetically is the best way to get it right next time and the time after that.’
Other memory aids you use to remember new information – repeating it immediately, linking the new name with something you already know – can also help. The aim is to avoid having to ask for the correct pronunciation a second time.
In situations where you need to introduce people, announce award recipients or say names in any sort of public environment, it’s important to master pronunciation beforehand. ‘If you’re presenting at a ceremony, for example, read through the names to see if you need to find out how to pronounce somebody’s name correctly,’ Loney says.
Pronouncing names correctly also means adhering to any local adaptations and recognising that pronunciations, like language, can be fluid and change over time. ‘How someone pronounces their surname might be different to how their grandparents pronounce their surname – it’s really important to pronounce it the way you’re taught,’ Loney says.
‘Pronounce it in a way that’s natural to you, but don’t mimic an accent or anything like that because that’s just plain disrespectful and offensive.’
And if you’re curious about the origin of a name or someone’s cultural heritage, it’s okay to enquire in the right context. ‘If you’re having a conversation about a particular topic and it comes up, sharing this information helps people get to know one another. Try to always be guided by the other person,’ Loney says.
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