Why mispronouncing names is a bigger deal than you think it is

Maura Kelly, Opinion Columnist

This article is dedicated to everyone who has never found their name on a keychain souvenir. 

I love my name; it’s mine, which makes it special. Unfortunately, it’s one of those names that people continually mess up. My name isn’t even that difficult to pronounce. It’s white; you can practically smell the lack of melanin emanating off of it. “MORE – Uh” Two syllables, yet apparently deceptively complex. 

My mom had a friend (who we used to visit far more than I would’ve liked), who for years continued to mispronounce my name even after being corrected. This woman used to kiss my mother hello and goodbye on the lips, which was comical and offputting to the highest degree because my mom would try to avoid it every time and fail. I could never quite rationalize why I didn’t fully respect this woman. It frustrated and annoyed me that she couldn’t just say my name right because it felt like she was doing it on purpose. It seemed like she didn’t care to learn, which insulted me. It insulted me more that my mom continued to spend time with her when she couldn’t grant me the basic decency of pronouncing my name right, and when she denied us the basic respect of personal boundaries. 

Learning how to say someone’s name correctly is one of the most basic forms of human decency you can offer. Our names are one of the core building blocks of our identity. Name mispronunciation is a faux pas we often disregard because we simply don’t want to try, and everybody has trouble pronouncing words they don’t know. I don’t think we should be letting people off the hook that easily. You should learn how to pronounce a person’s name correctly. You could ask them to repeat it slower, get clarification on the breakdown of syllables, create a nomenclature in your head or write it down phonetically.    

Even listening at the Power & Privilege Symposium, I cringed when one of the faculty speakers covered their ass by saying something along the lines of, “Sorry if I butchered that name.” If you’re giving a speech that you have prepared and done the research for, you should know how to pronounce the names you are presenting. 

Professors are also no strangers to name mispronunciation. Just the other week, I lingered after class for a minute to gently tell my professor that he had been saying my Black classmate’s name wrong. This fact was appalling to me because he had previously had this student in a class and was still taking creative liberty in the pronunciation department. I know how embarrassing it can feel to correct someone on your name. Sure enough, in the next class he was able to pronounce her name correctly. I had known he was capable because I knew it wasn’t a difficult task; he just hadn’t taken the time to learn. 

My friend also recently told me a story about a different professor who seemed to be purposefully messing up students’ names. At first, he was just switching the two Asian students’ names. Then he started doing it with anyone of the same race or anyone with mild similarities, even though he had previously pronounced these names correctly.

My friend said, “It felt like he was trying to prove he was bad with names rather than being racist.” This sounded like a performance to me, and a poorly executed one at that. 

Mispronunciation after a while can get to a person. When I am in situations where people can’t pronounce my name, I lose a little bit of respect for them because the effort they are putting forth to learn it is absent. It makes me less likely to participate in class because I feel that my presence isn’t valued enough to even bother with. It makes me sad to think of the countless people who do hear an incorrect pronunciation everyday.

Many international students preemptively pick a new name so it will be less troublesome for people. I get this; I can see how it would make your life easier so you aren’t constantly correcting people. I also imagine that it could be mentally taxing and a tad confusing to have to shift between your two names or your two identities. 

Now, I know some people are genuinely horrible with names. Maybe you have a difficult time recognizing faces, maybe you struggle generally with your memory or maybe languages aren’t your strength and you have a hard time with pronunciation. However, I think the most important thing is that you make an effort. If you are someone who struggles with pronunciation, practice saying it correctly. I promise it makes a greater lasting impact than you think.