Psychology and Relationships

Harvard-trained etiquette expert: How to tell someone they got your name wrong—without making it awkward

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When someone mispronounces your name or calls you by a different one, piping up to correct them can feel impossible. Do you interrupt the flow of conversation and address them in the moment? Or do you wait until later? 

Harvard-trained etiquette expert Sara Jane Ho prides herself on making uncomfortable situations like this feel manageable.

Ho is the founder of Institute Sarita, a finishing school that focuses on social conventions, and host of the Netflix show "Mind Your Manners," where she helps different "students" learn how to use etiquette to improve their relationships and well-being. 

Recently, she told CNBC Make It she had to correct someone over WhatsApp about the spelling of her name. The key, she says, is to keep the interaction quick and casual. 

"When you correct someone, you don't want to dwell on it," she says. "You want to get going and move on." 

Here is Ho's step-by-step guide:

  1. Wait for a pause in the conversation: Don't interrupt them midsentence. Wait until there is a natural lull or it's your turn to respond. 
  2. Use a nonjudgmental voice: "The most important thing is your tone,"  Ho says. "When you lose your cool, it's just the beginning of negativity that spirals. But if you keep your tone neutral matter of fact, then it won't be offensive." You can even pat them on the arm to further demonstrate you're not upset. 
  3. Tell them it's a common mistake, whether or not it is: Ho suggests saying something like, "It's actually pronounced [say correct pronunciation of your name], but don't worry, it happens all the time." This doesn't actually have to be true. "Even if they are the only one who says your name wrong, just make it seem like they are not, so they don't feel singled out," she says. 
  4. Change the subject:  Then, quickly redirect the conversation to something else. In a small, informal group, you can try to make a joke or compliment one of the people there. You just don't want the conversation to end on that note of correction. 

When Ho had to tell her colleague that her first name wasn't spelled with an "H," this is the formula she used. 

"I said, 'BTW my name is spelled Sara' and then wrote something else to change the subject," she says. "I actually wrote two messages after that." 

The other person was receptive, she says, and they quickly moved on.

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