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Why pronouncing names correctly is important, what you can do about it

My name sounds like three awkward syllables that will never quite leave your tongue. It’s Annika, and you pronounce it by saying the name “Ann”, followed by the name “Nick” and a moment of realization: “Ah”.

Not Aw-nih-kah, Aw-nee-kah or any other iteration you could think of.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain this to other people, only to have them butcher my name the next time we meet.

Remembering any name is hard, and it’s harder when they’re rare like mine, so I don’t always blame them. But I still can’t ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach that I get when people I’ve corrected multiple times before get it wrong, or when someone doesn’t seem to care enough to ask me.

My name is closely tied to my identity and pronunciation errors weigh more heavily on me than most people realize. There’s also the embarrassment and anxiety of interrupting a conversation, a business meeting, or a class of 250 people just to correct someone – if I can muster the courage.

This is something I wish more people would understand, or at least consider. So I decided to find out: How often do I experience an unusual name?

Turns out I’m not the only one feeling this.

It’s a shared experience full of stress and embarrassment

Before writing this, I posted to my Instagram story in hopes of finding one or two other people who would be comfortable telling me about their uncommon name.

Twenty-five people contacted me to share their experiences, and 21 of them said that the pronunciation errors had harmed them in some way.

“[It] still feels embarrassed and dehumanizing, like my name is an inconvenience to others and not important to me and my identity,” Johan Alvarado, San Francisco-based editorial assistant for HarperCollins Publishers, told me.

Sixteen people, including Alvarado, told me that their name was sometimes a source of stress or anxiety. Fourteen of them specifically pointed to workplace or classroom situations.

It’s common, says Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

People often perceive mispronunciations as subtle insults, put-downs, or invalidations, Durkee says. And whether intentional or completely accidental, these types of microaggressions can affect a person’s mental health.

“These are stressors. Cumulatively, they have a much greater effect on individuals, which can lead to negative correlations with mental health over time,” Durkee says.

Studies over the past decade highlight the mental health consequences of microaggressions, including low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and depression.

This is partly why some people opt for other ways of saying their name.

Pronunciation errors can cause people to opt for alternatives – with mixed results

In fourth grade, I let my class call me Aw-nee-kah for the entire school year. My teacher said it that way during roll call on the first day, and I panicked inwardly about whether to correct her. Instead, I tentatively raised my hand to indicate that I was there.

I decided not to correct anyone after that day. I was afraid I would confuse them, make their daily interactions with me difficult, or have to correct them a dozen more times. In retrospect, I would have liked to talk about it.

Five people I spoke to described opting for nicknames. Shefali Raghavan, a risk audit associate in New York, sometimes shortens her name to “Shef.” It’s an easy alternative that doesn’t prompt uncomfortable questions, she says – but every time she hears the nickname, she can’t help but feel disappointed and regretful.

“I feel like I’m lowering my standards for who I am,” Raghavan says.

Some people intentionally adopt whiter-sounding names, which can affect their relationship to their cultural identity. New York product manager Xuenan Lily Hu says she often chooses to use “Lily” instead of “Xuenan”, but she doesn’t always like it.

“My Chinese name, Xuenan, is not just a label of who I am. It’s also an acknowledgment of the culture I come from,” Hu said. “When I choose to go through Lily instead, I feel like I’m letting go of that part of my identity to settle comfortably into conformity.”

So why do it? Convenience, both for others and for yourself – saving energy to repeatedly correct people around you.

What you can do to help people around you

Pronunciation errors, corrections and adjustments can harm people with uncommon names. You may be surprised at how much you can help and how little effort it will take.

Names can be tricky. You could be wrong many times – and that’s okay. It’s your intentionality that counts, says Durkee: If you’ve just met someone and are going to interact with them a lot in the future, take the time and make the effort to at least try to say it correctly.

If you’re not sure what pronunciation or name someone prefers to use, don’t guess. Ask, and if you forget the answer, apologize and ask again.

“A lot of times people will just be comforted and thrilled that you took the initiative,” Durkee says.

Just don’t make an executive decision without asking, he adds: that choice should always “be in the hands of the person whose name it bears.”

This rings true to me. I don’t expect people to perfect my name the first or second time. I have no grudge against the people who still slaughter him today.

All I ask is that you try.

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