Name Pronunciation: Why It’s Important To Pronounce Names Right

Updated June 24, 2022

Our names can represent who we are, where we come from or who we strive to be. Your given first or last name might carry deep familial, historical or cultural ties or your chosen nickname, pronunciation or spelling might represent an important part of your identity. Making an effort to pronounce your colleagues’ names correctly is an important part of creating a workplace that emphasizes inclusion and belonging. 

In this article, we explain how to ensure you are pronouncing others’ names correctly. If your name is often mispronounced, we also offer tips for how to address it with colleagues.

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How to prioritize name pronunciation at work

If you’re unsure about how to pronounce a coworker’s name, the more professional and more respectful approach is to take the time to make sure you’ve got a person’s name correct. Here are several simple and practical ways to navigate name pronunciation professionally:

If in doubt, ask

Rather than assuming you know how to pronounce someone’s name, ask them to help you. Otherwise, it can be awkward for you and uncomfortable for them to continue on with a mispronunciation. Asking for their input also may reduce any apprehension they may have toward correcting you.

Keep it simple and brief

Once you’ve heard the correct pronunciation, thank your coworker and move on. Continued statements about their name can be uncomfortable or even viewed as intrusive. Avoid characterizing a name as “tricky” or “difficult”—this might be viewed as a microaggression.

Listen to understand

There are times when it’s appropriate to continue the conversation about your colleague’s spelling or pronunciation of their name. If they offer an explanation without prompting, focus completely on what they are saying so you can understand their message and respond thoughtfully. 

Example: “My last name originates from the town of Liepāja in Latvia, where a large portion of my ancestry line ends back in 1941, almost definitively due to the Liepāja massacres,” says Cassie Lebauer, an accessibility developer at Indeed. “Often, people take it upon themselves to capitalize the B in my last name. While this is almost always an innocent mistake done with good intentions, it constantly implies that my lineage is French, which continues to erode at what's left of that corner of my lineage.” 

Listening to their explanation can help you understand why it’s important to them that their name is spelled or pronounced correctly.

Related: How To Practice Inclusiveness in the Workplace

Pay attention to name spelling

As companies increasingly use virtual methods of communication, learning how to correctly spell a colleague’s name has become just as important as knowing how to pronounce it. 

“If you're unsure how to write someone's name, double-check,” Lebauer says. “Directories, chat, email, Wiki, project management tools, databases—there are so many easy and quick ways to ensure you spell people's names properly.”

Ask them privately

It can be uncomfortable for some people to correct a colleague in a group setting, especially if they’re around new people. 

“If you're unsure how to pronounce someone's name, message them on the side and ask,” Lebauer says. “Even if you're pretty sure, ask anyway. I would always rather someone ask me whether my name is pronounced ‘Cah-see’ or ‘Cay-see’ than to need to correct someone I've never met mid-meeting.”

Actively listen

When you’re unfamiliar with someone’s name pronunciation or spelling, ask them directly—and actively listen. Ensuring you quickly learn someone’s name is an easy way to boost someone’s confidence and make them feel like they are an important member of your team.

“It's exhausting to have to say ‘L, E, lowercase B’ and find it capitalized down the line anyway; to see my name in print, in Slack, in emails with a capital B, when my name never appears this way in any of our systems,” Lebauer says. “If it was once or twice, I'd call it a mistake, but this is a pattern.” 

Be humble

If you realize you’ve been saying or spelling a colleague’s name wrong, apologize and ask them to say or spell it correctly for you. You might practice the correct name in private to avoid making the same mistake again. 

“People often insist that my name is Cassandra, and tend to ask ‘Are you sure?’ when I tell them my legal birth name is just Cassie—named after my maternal grandfather Kazimierz,” Lebauer says. 

Be an ally

Part of being an ally in the workplace is speaking up when you witness a microaggression against someone else even when you aren’t the one being marginalized. Name-based microaggressions may be seen as a lack of respect, especially when the coworker who is mispronouncing or spelling the name insists they are correct. Be an active bystander by taking the initiative to politely but quickly correct them.

“If you catch anyone mispronouncing someone else’s name, be the one to correct them—regardless if the person in question is in the room,” Lebauer says. 

Related: 5 Steps To Become a Better Ally at Work

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How to help colleagues pronounce your name

Here are several practical and professional ways to help your colleagues correctly pronounce or spell your name:

Explain your name’s significance if you want to

If the setting is right (and you feel comfortable), consider sharing the origin of your name. Explaining the historical significance of your name to someone from a different ethnic background can provide them with a new understanding and perspective. 

“As an Asian American, I'm proud of my surname and how it connects me to my Vietnamese heritage,” says Sherrie Nguyen, senior manager of SMB product marketing at Indeed. “In Vietnamese history, this last name is linked back to the dynasty era. As dynasties were overthrown and different rulers came into control, they forced families to change their last name to Nguyen. Others changed their last name to Nguyen for fear of retribution and prosecution and this pattern continued for hundreds of years. My last name is rooted in imperialism.”

Prepare your response

Practice correcting people on your name—the more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel to speak up as opposed to casually accepting the improper pronunciation. You may also want to prepare responses to inappropriate, frequently asked questions about your name. 

“I receive frequent microaggressions, such as ‘Do you know X Nguyen?’ To which I respond, ‘Nguyen is as common as Smith or Johnson. Do you ever ask X Smith if they know another Smith?’”

Ask someone to intervene

If people are frequently mispronouncing your name, in addition to correcting them yourself, it can be useful to let your manager or someone else on your team know and ask for their help. That way they can gently correct others and model correct pronunciation even in conversations that you're not a part of.

Use memory techniques

Some people will have an easier time learning your correct name pronunciation or spelling if you teach it to them using a mnemonic technique. Auditory learners may need you to repeat the correct pronunciation of your name aloud multiple times to commit it to memory, while other colleagues might need a tip to help them remember. (For example: “Hello! I’m Torrey—rhymes with safari.”)

Related: Diversity Leadership: How Inclusive Teams Achieve Success

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