Friday, May 11, 2012

What's in a name?

(photo by elvis santana, used with permission)

Today I read something that broke my heart.  Someone was recapping a conversation they had with a former customer.  That customer is an immigrant and ... well, let's just say their name is not something like "Mary" or "Kelsie."  This person's boss, however, says he is having difficulty remembering her name and makes her wear a name tag that reads "Sally."


I got to this point in writing today's post and have stared at it for hours.  Each time I come back to it, my heart pounds.  It hits me very close to home, and I go back and forth between feeling very defensive and also having empathy and wanting people to listen, hear and learn.  Maybe change.

I have a child with a name that is not common in America. 

This child has taken on a nickname to avoid the common butchering of their name.

Their name.

The name that was chosen by their first parents.  Chosen for them.  In another country.  Amongst pain and poverty and hardship, they were celebrated and given a special place in this world.  Just like I was.  Just like you were. 

They miss their country.  They miss their family.  They take great pride in their heritage.  They struggle in their heart often with the difficult decisions which were made for them.  One of the beautiful things they have always carried with them is ... their name.

That name encompasses things that are important to them.  People who are important to them.  Places that are important to them.

It takes a minute to learn it and understand exactly how to pronounce it.  It may take a little practice before it's memorized.  The people who do that for my child are saying, "You are worth that bit of time.  You are worth it to me, so that every single time I address you, for as long as I know you, I will honor all of you.  I want to do that."

That's huge.  And it's also rare.  Very rare

I wanted to throw out a challenge. 

Some feel angry when they are confronted with things that are foreign.  They feel put-out and annoyed.  They are upset that their lives have been inconvenienced or that extra is being asked of them to function around someone who does not fit their norm.  If that's you, I would ask you to just sit with that for a minute.  Feel the anger and frustration.  Feel it and then try something new. 

Find someone who has a name you either butcher or politely avoid.  Very plainly state to them, "I'm afraid I might be saying your name incorrectly.  Could you teach me the proper pronunciation so I know I have it right?"  And then take the time to learn.  And if you have to ask them to repeat it more than twice, and you start to feel embarrassed because you're just not getting it, I would ask you to not pretend you got it and move along.  Instead, say, "This is important to me, so I'm going to keep working on it until I get it."

And do that.  Keep working on it until you get it.  Then call that person by their given name.  Honor them and their history each and every time you see them.  Practice it, and see what happens. 

It is quite likely they have just as much difficulty with American names and have been giving you the same courtesy all along.


fallinginbedford said...

Love this post!

scooping it up said...

weepy. we are in process to adopt two girls, 6 and 11. the older one has a tricky name for Americans. every time a friend of mine asks "ok, am i getting it right?" i am so so grateful. this is wonderful and true and helpful and everything i wish people would know about our kiddos. thank you for writing this.

Hannah Banana said...

We have that same problem with our 15 year old... and she was born in America!

People get it wrong all the time... and they say, "I probably won't remember that so I'll just call you, _____ lame name here."

I could punch them every time they say that. I want to say, "just don't call her anything at all!"




Christine Moers said...

A new friend in my life asked me to post this comment for her. I was still not 100% sure of her pronunciation, and wanted to get it exactly right, so I made sure to ask! :)

"Love THIS! Yes, 100 times over. Our names are important.

A boss that can't remember a name probably isn't running their business well, either. Eeegads!

I have a pseudo-"American" name, I suppose. It's Lara. Laura without the U, I say. I was named after a popular movie at the time of my birth, Dr. Zhivago. The musical score to that movie is my song. "Lara's Theme." I have close friends that still pronounce it LORA. But then they also say "eggs" funny. And since I'm from the South, perhaps they think I say everything funny.

Our parents give a lot of thought to our names. Our names figure into the sum of what we think we are. I gave my children their own LAST name because a woman in our country is always named after a man, be it husband or father. My girls bear my middle name as their last.

That said, sometimes things that are different are hard. I hope this boss realizes soon that it is s/he who should be wearing a sticker to remind them of the proper pronunciation. If not, I hope the employee learns to pronounce the employer's name "

MamaPPod said...

Christine, THANK YOU!! This is so important for people to hear. When we considered adoption we agonized over names for our new children. This was complicated by the fact that every member of our biological family has a name that begins with the same letter. I worried and agonized and lost sleep over their names. How would they ever feel like part of our family if their names didn't "match"?

After one day spent with them (biological siblings), I just knew that we couldn't change their names to fit our standards. These names were the only things left from their past - a gift from their parents. And I am very careful to break down their names to make them more pronounceable for people, because you are right, people need to just get over it and LEARN their names.

How I wish "Sally" could call her boss some other name, telling him that she just can't remember his name, so she will call him something else.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Up until age 14, I went by the common mispronunciation of my name... it was just easier than always correcting people. I was terribly shy, and generally liked being not seen and noticed.

Then one day, a new teacher pronounced it the right way (which was odd to me, I was so used to NOT hearing it that way). I thought to myself... if she can get it, why can't anyone else.. it's my name, that's who I am!

From that moment on, I owned my crazy-ass pronounced name (I'm born and raised American).. and started standing up for being addressed correctly.

It's a constant battle.. my entire name is weird to most folks. But it's mine. I own it.

And I try my darndest to respect addressing people the way they want to.. which is difficult being hard of hearing. Almost to a fault.. I'm so terrified of misaddressing someone and causing someone the heartache I go through all the time defending my name, so generally avoid needing to say people's names in the first place.

Kim said...

I LOVE this! It's always been important to me and my husband to call people by their given name. As a former ESL teacher, he works hard to get it right! After four years of college, I found out that one of my closest friends had introduced herself by the common mispronunciation of her Sri Lankan name. I was horrified that she had allowed us to call her that for all of those years and felt terrible. Thankfully, she decided that, in grad school, she would introduce herself properly. All of us have adjusted easily to the switch and it now seems odd to call her anything else. Our son is a pre-adoptive placement with us and the caseworkers have strongly encouraged us to change his name for legitimate safety reasons (yes, we do agree with the reasons). He deeply identifies with his name, though. It's such a quandary for us. Any advice for how to proceed with that one?!

Foster Mom - R said...

Love this. Not only as a foster mom to kids with hard to spell and pronounce Hispanic names but also as a person who has a hard to pronounce name. I think all people deserve to be called by their name. Nothing drives me more nuts in a professional setting than a person admitting the are going to be lazy (and disrespectful) and not even try.

Hillary said...

Love love love! As someone whose name is most often pronounced "urine" (lucky me!) and people don't even notice (really? Do you REALLY think my last name would be URINE???), I so appreciate when people take a minute to get it right. I had an admin at a school once declare, 'Oh your last name's too hard, we'll just call you Miss Hillary" and I was super peeved. I didn't say anything then, but I sure would now!

My sister Kelly just goes by the last name Green (cause she's really into the environment, conservation, cause Kelly Green is a shade of green, etc) and many of her friends don't even know that's not her real name. She's even published an article in a magazine under that name, and it irks me. Like she's ashamed of our family or something.

Same goes with spelling. My name has two L's, and it's amazing how often people don't take the time to spell it right (if they've seen it, like in replying to an email or something). Forgiveness is granted if they've never seen it, of course! :)

So, all that to say... I agree! Names matter!

Hillary said...

haha... meant to say "last name." Pretty hard to get "urine" from "Hillary" ;)

Threads of Light said...

Thank you, this is a very small thing to many but it's a BIG thing to the person whose name is mispronounced or misspelled or whatever.
My name has been spelled and pronounced incorrectly my whole life, and I've always felt that those who do not take the time to get it right just don't care about me. Lately I've become more forgiving because who knows, maybe they are dyslexic or have some other factor stopping them getting it right.
I always try to get other people's names right because of this. I love learning foreign names and working on saying them right! Absolutely love it! Now that I've learned there is a common English word (a long word) that has my name both spelled and pronounced correctly in the middle of it, it's easy to help others get it right.
Once when my new credit card came it had my name spelled incorrectly. I didn't even want to touch it. It wasn't mine. Amazing to me to learn how closely my name is held in my heart as representing who I am, and I hope and pray I will always remember that this is the case for other people as well.

yellowgirl said...

we kept our daughter's birth name as one of her middle names (she has 3!) because it was her birth mom's gift to her. i often call her by that name. i disagree with changing kids names after adoption, i think, unless they are babies, as she was. especially older children, who have so little...

Anna said...

As someone that has a very distinct and unusual Scandinavian name I can so relate. Most foreigners don´t even bother trying to pronounce my name because the second they hear it it´s like"Nope it´s too difficult". Even people in my own country mispronounce or confuse my name and don´t bother learning it.

And then there´s of course the glory of being stopped at Dulles airport when I was visiting USA because my name uses letters which don´t exist in the English alphabet (and are therefore transliterated on my green card application to imitate the sound the letter has) and the airport staff thought there was something totally fishy about that.

And yes Americans - I always make a point out of trying to pronounce your names right so it´d be nive if you tried too to pronounce Scandinavian names right ;)

Rob said...

Great thoughts. We had to struggle over what to name our Ethiopian son when he arrived. We decided to keep the core of his original name.

Nora said...

Thank you a million times for this post. We live not far from you and are about to welcome a toddler with an "atypical American" name into our family. Your post re-affirms our decision to honor the name given to him with love by his firstmother.

robyncalgary said...

Thank you so much for posting this. As someone with a hard to pronounce last name I appreciate when people ask how to say it and then keep TRYING until they say it right.

Your points on how important a name is, the joy and love when parents name their baby really resonates with me. I named my baby (bio) a very unique name (in North America) and I know she'll have to spell and pronounce it for people her whole life- first and last names lol anyways I named her that because it is a Zulu name and while her Zimbabwean father will never be in her life, I wanted her to have that connection to her heritage.

Annie said...

Names are holy. That's why they are so typically given as part of a religious celebration. Our names are a sign of who we are before God. "I call you each by name."

But I truly think that some people just don't care. Names hold no holy mystery for them. My foster son so completely gave up the proper pronunciation of his Russian last name that he, himself, says it wrong....and to me the "wrong" version doesn't sound just incorrect, but stupid, too - it is a silly-sounding set of syllables. But, there is no changing him; he says, "It's easier".

But my favorite example of oblivion in this regard was a secretary I had (inherited) who continually mispronounced the last name of one of our religion teachers. I finally couldn't take it any more and tactfully corrected, her: "I believe it is pronounced 'XXXX'". She responded, "Oh, yeah; SHE says it that way."

Natasha said...

Love this. I work with a girl from Poland, here in the UK. Having the upheaval of moving country, speaking a new language and everything the move entailed, the one thing she brings with her is her name. Her identity. Just two weeks ago she took the time to tell me I was the first person who had said her full name correctly and she thanked me for making the effort. It's always something I try to do, in learning and remembering every young persons name I work with, as it really does go a ling way :)

Michaela McCoin said...

Thank you Christine.

My name is not uncommon in America, but I was given a unique pronunciation. It sounds like there is a hard I in the middle, rather than the usual A. Like another commenter, I did not even use this name. I was given a nickname based on how a friend of the family thought my name should be pronounced. The difference is that I used the nickname until college! I met my husband in class during an exercise in interview techniques. When it was his turn to call on me,I bet him that he wouldn't remember how to say my name. Needless to say, he did! ;)

Now we have three adopted children. As counselled, we have changed names somewhat, but with the boys we kept the birth names as a part of the current name and they choose what they are comfortable being called. My daughter is a different story. Her birth name is unusual. She was 9 years old when she came to us and when we were talking about names she was adamant about changing her name. I offered her as many ways as I could think of to keep AT LEAST some part of her given name. I even suggested she just take the middle name Z. No go.

Now I think about it frequently. She is 15. When I come across old papers and projects with her birth name on them I wonder how she will ever find her way back to herself. Has she split off from the traumatized portion of her life and who she is?

She regularly tells me it's not an issue, it doesn't bother her.

I'm not convinced and I am not sure how we could have handled it differently. She was adamant to change it!

Anyway, we will go forward always working toward integration of identity, fractured as it may be.

Thanks for a thought provoking post.

Jessica Rudder said...

I always put in effort to say people's name correctly (or as correct as I'm able to get when my tongue won't cooperate at first).

That said, I'm also pretty lenient when people have trouble pronouncing my name. I have a lot of coworkers that are not originally from the U.S., and, although my name is incredibly common here, some of them have trouble pronouncing it. It's never bothered me when letters get slightly changed or their accents make my name sound different.

I can imagine though that if my name were uncommon and 98% of people said it wrong, it would be music to my ears the 1 time someone did bother to say it right.

Speaking of getting someone's name right, I recommend that you don't shorten someone's name or give them a nickname unless you're actually close to them and they've indicated it's appreciated.

I have never introduced myself as anything other than Jessica at work and there are quite a few people (almost always guys from the sales team) that immediately shorten my name to Jessie (a name I do not like at all). I'm not confrontational, so, I don't say anything to them, but, it irks me because it's not my name.

Anonymous said...

From someone with an incredibly difficult to pronounce, four-letter, exotic English-descended name--thanks so much for this post! I'm sorry that people are so sucky about pronouncing your kids' names. It's absolutely an important part of who you are and your heritage and identity, and so sad to have people treat we "weird" ones as the freaks we must be. I always wanted to change my name as a kid, and my mom always told me about how special it was. Now I'm glad that it's fun and fairly different, and I love it. But as a kid, especially if you already feel self-conscious or different, it really does stink. Tell them to hang in there.


(that's "my" as in the word "my" and "ra" as in the sound you get from an r and a--although I'm just as likely to go by Laura and Sara, which is obviously how it should be pronounced).

Tee said...

Appreciating this post, big time. Would love to send it to every adoptive family I know who thinks it's no big deal to change a child's name or change the spelling just to make it easier to pronounce or less ethnic-looking. As someone who proudly bears an ethnic name, and did so growing up in a community where I was a minority, I know how critical names can be to identity... all the more so for adopted kids. Thanks for the reminder to ask people if we can't pronounce their names.

Tee said...

I still feel queasy and angry when I remember a conversation I overheard at my first adoptive parents gathering, where (white) foster-adoptive parents were talking about how much they're looking forward to finalizing their adoptions so they can change the spellings of their (Black) kids' names to be more conventional (read: white) or even changing the names to be less ethnic sounding. These kids were not infants, either. Sadness.

Sara said...

I have a ridiculously easy name but...

I was teaching Sunday school years ago and the class had a set of VERY fraternal twins! I mean different weights, heights, eye color, and one had red hair while the other had brown hair. They looked NOTHING alike and you would (or wouldn't I guess) be surprised about how many of the other teachers said they "couldn't tell them apart" to call them the right name. Couldn't tell the difference, or couldn't take the time to try?

And now, I teach a college course. I had a student a few years ago with the name Brianna. I asked her if it was pronounced Bri - anna or Bri - ana (long a or short a). She said "either one". No - one is your name, and one is not. I guess she was tired of correcting people for so long!

Nelishia said...

My name is like the name Alisha but it begins with an N. I have explained, had it repeatedly butchered and even apologized to others for troubling them. People have literally laughed at me as if I've named myself and went out of my way to cause them problems. After two tries, if I'm lucky, I'm immediately dismissed with a 'never mind, it's too hard I'll just call you something else." I've even been told that is a 'Black' name and as I'm a white southern woman I think it's a highly rude and ignorant thing to say. It is and has always felt like a reject of me as a person when the person won't even bother. I've had people even turn their back on me and walk off and give up. It comes across clearly that I'm not worth their effort. After awhile I feel silly and embarrassed to stand there and argue with them. I even have had to show people how to pronounce the letter, 'N'. They still say it wrong anyway because they simply are not interested. I love my name. NOW. It's taken 50 years.

Christie said...

Fantastic post. I am constantly correcting professionals who butcher the Russian names of my children. I make sure they get it right!!

Wendy said...

Lovely. As an ESL teacher, in 20 years I've only had one name I never did get right, and it got to the point where I was to embarrassed to keep asking. It kills me when Jorges start going by George, or when I refer to Gilberto, (initial h sound) and his other teachers insist they don't have that kid, then finally say, "Oh, you mean Gilbert!" No. No, I don't.

We're adopting two kids, one with a non-American name, and one with a non-standard spelling. I have been so impressed by my students' response to hearing the "new" name. "Oh, that's so pretty!" they keep telling me. One girl was absent the day I told the class my news, and her classmates were able to fill her in on both kids' names. If my 15 year old students can learn it the first time, her teachers and bosses better be able to figure it out!

Wendy said...

*too* embarrassed
(And now I'm too embarrassed to be an English teacher with a typo.)

Mommy Linda's said...

It must be where you live. When we lived in Oregon, people slaughtered my sons' names, Elias and Ezra. But here in San Jose, CA, nearly half of the people here were born in another country, and many others are of different ethnic backgrounds. On our small street of about two dozen houses we have people who were born in Russia, Vietnam, Mexico, Bangladesh, China, and Bahais from Iran. Others have a mixture of ethnic backgrounds and interesting names. We quickly learn to pronounce or at least try to pronounce people's names from all over the world. We sometimes can't get our phonemes right, but we try, just as they try to pronounce our names. No matter how much I try, I just can't pronounce Xiao the right way, even though it has a beautiful meaning. But we still give it a go because that's the only way we can learn. We also give each other grace, learn to understand accents, and laugh at ourselves and apologize when we just can't get it right.

Shari said...

This doesn't happen just with people from foreign countries, more and more people are making up new names, My grandkids for example, 1/2 of them have names I've never heard of! At first they were tongue twisters, but after a little rolls off the tongue. "Sally" should take off the name tag!Her boss is a jerk!