I don't expect you to get my name right, but I want you to try: Why making the effort to pronounce names matters

Annika Kim Constantino
Source: Annika Kim Constantino

My name feels like three awkward syllables that will never quite roll off your tongue. It's Annika, and you pronounce it by saying the name "Ann," followed by the name "Nick" and a moment of realization: "Ah."

Not Aw-nih-kah, Aw-nee-kah or any other iteration you might be thinking of.

I can't count the number of times I've had to explain that to other people, only for them to butcher my name the next time we meet.

Remembering any name is hard, and it's harder when they're uncommon like mine, so I don't always blame them. But I still can't ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach I get when people I've corrected multiple times before get it wrong, or when someone doesn't seem to care enough to ask me.

My name is closely tied to my identity, and mispronunciations weigh more heavily on me than most people think. There's also the sheer embarrassment and anxiety of interrupting a conversation, work meeting or 250-person class just to correct someone — if I can gather the courage.

It's something I wish more people could understand, or at least consider. So I decided to find out: How common is my experience with an uncommon name?

Turns out, I'm not alone in feeling this way.

It's a shared experience full of stress and embarrassment

Before writing this, I posted on my Instagram story hoping to find one or two other people who would be comfortable talking to me about their uncommon name.

Twenty-five people reached out to share their experiences with me, and 21 of them said mispronunciations have been detrimental to them in some shape or form.

"[It] always feels embarrassing and dehumanizing, as if my name is an inconvenience for others and not important to my selfhood and identity," Johan Alvarado, a San Francisco-based editorial assistant for HarperCollins Publishers, told me.

Sixteen people, including Alvarado, told me their name was sometimes a source of stress or anxiety. Fourteen of them specifically pointed to workplace or classroom situations.

That's common, says Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

People often perceive mispronunciations as subtle insults, put-downs or invalidations, Durkee says. And whether intentional or completely accidental, those types of microaggressions can affect a person's mental health.

"They are stressors. Cumulatively, they have a much larger effect on individuals that can lead to negative correlations with mental health over time," Durkee says.

Studies over the past decade point to the mental health consequences of microaggressions, including low self-esteem, stress, anxiety and depression.

That's partly why some people opt for alternative ways to say their names.  

Mispronunciations can push people to opt for alternatives — with mixed results

In fourth grade, I let my class call me Aw-nee-kah for the entire school year. My teacher pronounced it that way during roll call on the first day, and I panicked internally about whether I should correct her. Instead, I sheepishly raised my hand to indicate I was there.

I decided not to correct anyone after that day. I was scared that I'd confuse them, make their day-to-day interactions with me difficult or have to correct them a dozen times more. In retrospect, I wish I'd spoken up about it.

Five people I spoke to described opting for nicknames. Shefali Raghavan, a risk audit associate in New York, sometimes shortens her name to "Shef." It's an easy alternative that doesn't prompt uncomfortable questions, she says — but whenever she hears the nickname, she can't help but feel disappointment and regret.

"I feel like I'm lowering my standards for who I am," Raghavan says.

Some people intentionally adopt more white-sounding names, which can affect their relationship with their cultural identity. Xuenan Lily Hu, a product manager in New York, says she often chooses to go by "Lily" instead of "Xuenan," but she doesn't always like it.

"My Chinese name, Xuenan, is not just a label of who I am. It's also a recognition of the culture that I come from," Hu says. "When I choose to go by Lily instead, it makes me feel like I let go of that part of my identity to settle comfortably in conformity."

So why do it? Convenience, both for others and yourself — saving the energy it takes to repeatedly correct the people around you.

What you can do to help the people around you

Mispronunciations, corrections and adjustments can take a toll on people with uncommon names. You may be surprised how much you can help, and how little effort it'll take.

Names can be hard. You might get it wrong multiple times — and that's OK. It's your intentionality that matters, Durkee says: If you just met someone and you're going to interact with them a lot moving forward, take the time and effort to at least try to say it correctly.

If you're unsure about a pronunciation, or which name someone prefers to use, don't guess. Ask, and if you find yourself forgetting the answer, apologize and ask again.

"Oftentimes, people will just be comforted and pleased by the fact you took initiative," Durkee says.

Just don't make an executive decision without asking, he adds: That choice should always "lie within the hands of the person whose name it is."

That rings true for me. I don't expect people to perfect my name the first or second time around. I don't harbor grudges against people who still butcher it today.

All I ask is that you try.

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