Skip to main content

What's in a name?


By Ciara McCrory

A few years back, while living and working in Australia, I was faced with the dreaded task of putting a ‘fun’ fact about myself on my business card. While my colleagues talked about their award wins and party tricks, I took the opportunity to right a wrong.

"It’s actually pronounced KEER-AH."

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I was one of three Ciaras in my class. I had never encountered anyone who had trouble spelling or pronouncing my name. When I moved to Liverpool for university however, this all changed.

Over the years that have followed, I’ve heard it all. A colleague once even told me that he initially avoided speaking to or about me because my Irish name made him so nervous. Only seldomly woud I correct people for fear of rocking the boat or seeming ‘difficult’ but chances are, if you’ve called me Sierra or Keyahra in a meeting I’ve corrected you in recent years.

I am most definitely not alone.

Taking the time to get to know people’s names and pronouncing them correctly is coming under increasing scrutiny in today’s society, particularly in the workplace. Where a mispronunciation was once seen as lazy, it can now be construed as offensive.

The issue was given a spotlight when Kamala Harris was elected Vice President last year and faced consistent mispronunciation of her first name by political rivals and news pundits. Whether a genuine error or a wilful attempt to showcase her ‘otherness’, her steadfast and patient corrections showed that there’s no excuse for failing to master names.

The #MyNameIs campaign did a survey, finding that 73% of respondents from more than 100 organisations said they’d had their names mispronounced. People said it made them feel ‘not valued or important’, ‘disrespected’ and ‘that they didn’t belong’. The campaign launched a digital tool to help people translate their names to phonetics and is calling for organisations to standardise these phonetic spellings in email signatures and throughout their businesses.

Whereas we’ve traditionally seen people with difficult-to-pronounce names altering the spelling or taking a laisse faire approach to how they’re addressed, a sea change may be coming. Thandie Newton recently reverted to the original Zimbabwean spelling of her first name, Thandiwe. She publicly said "That's my name. It's always been my name. I'm taking back what's mine,". We’ve also seen comedian Hasan Minhaj correct Ellen DeGeneres on her pronunciation of his name - the clip has 4.1M views on Twitter.

Ultimately, names are important. They are our identities and can be deeply rooted in social and cultural beliefs. Taking the time to ask how to pronounce a new colleague or friend’s name correctly won’t cause any offence and can foster a diverse, inclusive, and accepting culture.