"Hello, my name is ___." We say it so often that we made a sticker to say it for us. Our names are often the first pieces of information we exchange with someone — they are the select words that we use to summarize our identities as people. So, what happens when we bungle that first impression by being unable to pronounce someone’s name? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the repercussions for that misidentified person?
We live in an increasingly connected world, and the boundaries between countries and communities shrink as technology advances. But as the world shrinks, our number and variety of social connections expand. At school, work and the grocery store, we meet new people, learning new names, every day. We used to have six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon at any given time and now, according to number crunching by Facebook, that number is closer to four.
More than just a name
Taking the time to say someone’s name correctly is a small gesture that can have deep, profound impacts. Names are often deeply rooted in culture, religion and genealogy. Karen Pennesi, an associate professor of linguistic and sociocultural anthropology at Western University, studies this and says names have value.
"Names connect you to other social groups, whether it's a family, or ethnicity or culture," she says.
She explains why people struggle pronouncing names they don't recognize. "Names are connected to languages, so if you're not used to pronouncing sounds in a different language, then you're going to have a hard time with it," Pennesi says.
The mistakes are common for a reason: Your tongue hasn’t been trained to make those sounds. However, getting a name wrong can still lead to serious consequences.
Megan Oosthuizen grew up in Dallas but was born in South Africa. Her last name is Dutch, and her family had been in South Africa since the 1400s. Oosthuizen is no stranger to the frustrations of having an unusual name.
"Even at my high school graduation, which was kind of like a big event in my life, my name was said wrong," Oosthuizen says.
She seriously considered changing her name when she began pursuing journalism in college because it would be easier for readers to find and remember her.
Oosthuizen instead changed her mind, however, after seeking advice from a friend. "He said, 'Be so good that people are forced to remember your name,' and after that, I only publish under my name because, you know what, it’s the only one I get," she says.
Trick of the tongue
"There's lots of studies on schools showing teachers avoid saying the names of students when they find their name hard to pronounce," Pennesi says. "When they don't get called on, they don't get picked, and then they just essentially get excluded, and that obviously affects their educational experience. In order to avoid all of that, people will change their name or alter it in some way to make it easier for others. And then that can affect their own sense of self."
It’s a fairly universal joke that if you speak three languages you’re a trilingual, if you speak two languages you’re bilingual, and if you speak one language you’re American. However, just how difficult it will be to twist your tongue around someone’s name often depends on whether it was derived from a tonal language.
"You're going to have an easier time pronouncing names that use the same sounds of your own language, so a Spanish speaking person can't pronounce a Chinese name any better," Pennesi says.
In a tonal language, the meaning of a word and its grammatical value can change depending on the pitch or tone used. English and many European languages such as German and Spanish are non-tonal languages, and many Asian languages like Mandarin or Punjabi are tonal.
Adrian Victor Leto Burtin
"When it comes to, say, English speakers and French speakers, [pronunciation is difficult] because you are not using your tongue and entire mouth the same way," says Adrian Victor Leto Burtin, who is in a semester-long exchange program between MU and his home university in Belgium. Although he is French, he lives in Belgium and his first name is actually Spanish. No matter where he goes, people struggle to say his name as well.
He explains that when speaking English, the tongue is kept farther back in one’s mouth, and when speaking French, the tongue is closer to the front of the mouth. "We use our teeth more in French and a lot of Romanic languages way more than Germanic languages," he says.
"When I was a teenager, I was pissed because it had been years and everybody was messing up my name," Burtin says. "So, [on Facebook] I put an accent on the second 'a' that doesn't exist. I wanted people to know if there's an accent, you need to pronounce every letter. And so now it created another problem: People are writing my name wrong." This has led to legal issues. For example, his name has been incorrectly written on paperwork for an internship.
How to avoid mispronouncing their names again
Studies have found that people are more likely to live in places that resemble their names and to pursue careers that sound like their names. Imagine an "Ivan the eye doctor" or "Libby the librarian." How your name is perceived has been shown to affect your chances of being interviewed, your love life and even your likelihood of winning a Nobel Prize.
The psychology of names is subtle yet pervasive. Here are some tips to best learn someone's name no to matter the etymology:
1. If you want to become from familiar with the pronunciation of a variety of names, you don’t have to learn an entirely new language. Instead of memorizing words, try familiarizing yourself with pronunciation. If you want to understand the pronunciation of Spanish, for example, you could study it from a detailed website like this or from a YouTube video like this:
2. Google it! Sites like Forvo.com have recordings you can play of native speakers saying certain words or names. If you are still unsure, try looking up the pronunciation of the specific name on YouTube. The videos are available anytime and as many times as you need.
3. Record people saying their names, and listen back. With your smartphone's audio recording capabilities, you can bypass awkwardly asking people to say their names 10 times by just playing it back yourself. This can show you're making an effort to respect a new friend's title, and it can help their name stick in your brain.
If you’ve taken these tips to heart and still aren’t able to pronounce someone’s name correctly, give it time and practice. Whatever you do, don’t resort to re-naming them. "Don’t just nickname them like 'I'm just gonna call you Molly' or whatever," Pennesi says. Asking for a shorter or "American name" also can be insulting.
"There’s a difference between people who aren’t making an effort and those not being able to physically make their mouths do that thing. But I think in those cases, if you're shown effort, that goes a long way toward mitigating that negative impression," Pennesi says.