Living in the 21st Century, in times of globalisation and multiculturalism, have you ever met someone whose name just seems impossible to pronounce? Or are you someone whose name gets constantly mispronounced? 

I, to give you an example, personally, am experiencing situations like this on a regular basis: 

“Hi, my name is Franziska.”

“Nice to meet you, FranCESCA/FranziSCHka/FranSiSCa/FranTSCHiska/…”

I never realised what a hard-to-pronounce name I have before I moved countries. I got used to my name being mispronounced meanwhile. Well, at least all those versions are close to my real name. But, in all honesty, it hurts me a little every single time people would not make an effort to get it right and just call me whatever is comfortable for them. 

Having said that, how must all the TADGHs (TIE-ghs), AOIFEs (EE-fes) and HELENAs (HEH-leh-na (German, Czech), heh-LEH-na (German), heh-LEH-nah (Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish), kheh-LEH-na (Polish), HEH-leh-nah (Finnish), HEHL-ə-nə (English), hə-LEEN-ə (English)) out there feel!? 

Here is why it is important to pronounce names correctly: 

From when we are born, we live with our names – they are part of our identity. Often, our names were chosen with care and have a certain meaning. We speak about both first and surnames/heritage names. 

In India, for example, there is a name ceremony, called Naam Karan, which is one of 16 significant rituals in life. In this ceremony the chosen name is given in a large social gathering. 

Pronouncing names correctly is a way of showing respect for the name-bearer’s identity, race and ethnicity and, therefore, their individuality. When someone feels they have to compromise their identities to fit in, their emotional wellbeing suffers. 

Some people might interpret the mispronunciation of their name as harassment or discrimination – even if it happens unintentionally. And yes, strictly speaking name mispronunciation is a form of microaggression – a term defined by American researchers as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour (Sue et al., 2007).”

Mispronunciation of names brings across that the name is different, foreign and maybe even weird. Not making an effort to get it right makes the name-bearer feel less valued for the sake of someone else’s linguistic comfort. It is an act of bigotry and a lack of cultural respect.

Nobody wants to be labelled a bigot, right? 

So here is how to go about coming across a name that is unfamiliar to you/difficult to pronounce in a respectful, culturally sensitive way: 

Be open and simply ask how the name is pronounced, you might add “Can you teach me?” with a polite smile. If you don’t get it right the first time, ask again. 

Repeat the name to the name-bearer once they pronounce it to you, ask for corrections and thank them. Your effort will be appreciated. If you are about to meet someone whose name you already know, you could check it online. Sometimes a name can be pronounced in different ways – use the one preferred by the name-bearer. 

In reality, it only takes a tiny effort to make a big difference in someone’s life. Cultural sensitivity brings a feeling of being respected and triggers a sense of belonging.  

To pronounce a name correctly, you don’t need to be able to read the phonetic transcription which in my case, by the way, would look like this: /fɹænzɪskə/. 

If you are the one with a frequently mispronounced name, you can choose to be proactive in helping others get it right. You can, for example, add something that rhymes when saying your name or add, in emails or text messages, a hint like ‘it is pronounced as …’.  

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in sexuality, relationship issues, trauma and general mental health.