Names: They represent who we are and where we come from, and they can influence where we go, whether we like it or not. Research suggests monikers can impact prospects in life — both negatively and positively — because they reveal clues about a person’s gender, ethnicity, and age.

What this suggests is that names can be a trigger for unconscious bias, especially in professional spaces.

In some instances though, the bias is anything but unconscious.

When an ethnically or racially distinct name is continually and purposefully mispronounced, it can become a source of workplace stress, which can lead to burnout, health implications, and stalled career growth.

What’s in a name?

If you struggle to pronounce the name of a colleague, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re a racist or a bully.

Mispronunciation becomes ostracizing when an individual refuses to learn the correct way to say a colleague’s name, assigns them an American-style nickname, or uses the minority colleague’s name mockingly or condescendingly.

These are just a few examples of name-based microaggressions — a phenomenon that’s defined as a series of subtle but offensive comments or actions that reinforce stereotypes or bias.

“S,” a neuroscience professional from the Middle East who now lives and works in the U.S., knows this all too well.

She’s had her name mispronounced several times throughout her career, and says an encounter can result in lost productivity and anxiety.

“When it’s a butchering [of my name] and there are a bunch of people laughing, it throws me off for the rest of the day,” she says.

“I think about it as my stomach knots during dinner, I obsess over what I should have said as I’m trying to get to bed, and I dread the next time I have to see the person who mispronounced my name.”

In her experience, workplace mispronunciations are more hurtful than those experienced in school.

“In school, we saw the same people every day, so you would cringe when they took attendance, and that was about it,” she says.

“Now, it’s new people all the time and many “flavours” of mispronunciation: the complete omission, the “close enough,” the “way off” — and the slow torture in which someone says each syllable like they’re trying to spit rotten food out of their mouth.”

“Recently, someone who was performing a medical procedure on me was confirming my name, butchered it completely, and laughed as she was doing it. It did not inspire much confidence.”

The psychology behind name-based microaggressions

So what’s the psychology at work here?

Most U.S.-born, white individuals who are native English speakers can easily pronounce “difficult” Eurocentric names like “Leonardo DiCaprio” and “Constantinople,” so why are ethnically or racially distinct names any different?

“I think two factors influence our pronunciation ability,” Ying Shan (Doris) Zhang, a Ph.D. student at the Intercultural Communication Lab at the University of Alberta (U of A), told We Rep STEM in an email.

“The first factor is related to the similarities and differences between any language system. For instance, if the sound you are trying to pronounce does not exist in your native language, then you will likely struggle in getting that sound pronounced properly. However, if your native language system happens to share some common “sounds” with the target language, then pronunciation will become relatively easier for you.” 

The second factor, Zhang says, could be related to effort.

“Our efforts in learning difficult names may differ, based on the perceived need,” she explains.

“This is why mispronouncing ethnic minorities’ names can be regarded as microaggressions that signal a lack of respect and discrimination, especially: 1) When mispronunciations were associated with a lack of proper acknowledgment of the ethnic minority individual; and 2) When there is a perceived lack of effort in learning the authentic pronunciation of an ethnic name. We may be especially sensitive toward the mispronunciations coming from an ethnic majority individual.

Another factor? Some people may associate tension and unpredictability with intercultural interactions, which may decrease willingness to try to articulate an unfamiliar name, Zhang says.

“My view … is that intercultural interactions are usually higher in unpredictability and sensitivity. Possibly because of this, we may be a bit more tense during intercultural communication, compared to when we are communicating with someone from our own ethnic group.”

In 2019, Zhang surveyed 173 U of A international students. Among them, 75 per cent said their names were mispronounced at least some of the time, and half felt it was important that people try to say their name correctly.

In 2019, University of Alberta Ph.D. student Doris Zhang conducted a survey of 173 international students. Among them, 75 per cent said their names were mispronounced at least some of the time, and half felt it was important that people try to say their name correctly. (Photo: Geoff McMaster)

What to do when you struggle with pronunciation

If you have difficulty pronouncing a colleague’s name, Zhang says it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, provided you’re respectful.

“This view can be backed up by my study,” she says.

“From their survey responses, I found that even though the students did appreciate pronunciation accuracy and effort from others in Canada (in getting their names right), these students were very understanding toward people’s pronunciation difficulties due to language differences.”

“Sometimes it is all about taking that step forward to let the target person know that you want to learn the authentic pronunciation of his or her name. Even if you do not end up articulating the name right 100 per cent, it is the thought, and the effort, that matters foremost.”

Proper pronunciation = a sense of belonging

For S, learning how to say a colleague’s name properly is an inclusive gesture.

When asked what she would say to people who continually mispronounce her name, her message is clear.

“Many of us were teased or even ridiculed for how we pronounced things as we tried to learn English. Some of us have accents that are mocked, and we try our best to overcome and assimilate to give ourselves the best chance at success in this country,” she says.

“How is it that when we mispronounce, we feel ‘less than,’ but when YOU mispronounce, we are ALSO made to feel ‘less than?'”