A Name by Any Other Name

What’s in a name? For many, our name has heritage, cultural, identity and/or gender significance that we hold close to the heart.

When a new person joins an organization, one of the first things that typically happens is a flurry of introductions where people meet and welcome them to the group. At this point, mispronunciations or questions about potential nicknames (can we call you Jen?) are common, with clarifications going back and forth. Going forward, one reasonably expects to be addressed by their name, correctly, during interactions.

Why is it important to get names right when working with others? One of the biggest microaggressions that can take place is repeatedly mispronouncing someone’s name. The everyday or repeated slight, intentional or unintentional, can have a negative impact on the person’s sense of belonging in the organization. Calling a person by their correct name signifies a few key pieces of information:

  1. You know who I am
  2. You listen when I introduce myself to you or others
  3. You recognize me as part of the conversation, group, team, etc., and wish to communicate with me

Research by Deloitte in their 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey show that comfort, connection, and contribution are the top drivers of a sense of belonging. In other words, belonging is described as being able to bring our whole selves to work (comfort), feeling a sense of community with those whom we work (connection), and feeling recognized for what we contribute to the organization (contribution).

So, how do we foster that sense of belonging – comfort, connection, contribution – if we don’t start by saying a person’s name right? Particularly after it’s been clarified, or it’s being said correctly by others, but not said by one person?

Our name by any other name is not the same. Getting this right is one powerful way to foster a sense of belonging from the start.

Gabriella Broady

Here are a few suggestions on getting it right:

  1. Ask. If you are not sure you heard it correctly, or if you are hearing it said different ways by different people, ask the person, “Have I got your name correctly? Can you remind me how to pronounce your name again?”
  2. Avoid nicknames. Unless the person specifically brings it up, or suggests it, please do not assign a nickname to them, or say things like, “that’s too long, I am going to call you Mo” (instead of Mohammed, for example).
  3. Advocate. If you hear others saying your colleague’s name incorrectly, please advise the person on your colleague’s behalf. “Joan, just a quick head’s up that her name is pronounced ‘Comma-la’, not ‘Kah-MAH-la’,”

A name by any other name is not the same. Some critics of microaggression or diversity, inclusion, and equity topics have stated that this is a small thing, that perpetuates victimhood or fragility. It would be interesting to conduct a ‘blind social experiment’ by having 1-2 people consistently call them ‘Jake’ when their name is Jack, or ‘Alex’ when their name is Alexandra. Some have shared stories of coworkers, even bosses, mispronouncing their name, or calling them by unwanted nicknames for months or even years, despite reminders.

A name by any other name is not the same. In the words of a Janet Jackson song, “My name ain’t Baby. It’s Janet. Miss Jackson, if you please.” This small gesture of working to get a team member’s name correct can go a long way toward building respectful working relationships and enhancing sense of belonging.

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