I’ve always envied those who have names that people pronounce with ease and confidence; a name that doesn’t cause people to ask for repeats or to say “sorry, I didn’t quite catch that”. Instead, I have what is deemed (by Western society) a ‘difficult’ name, one that’s brought me great difficulty in simply getting people to pronounce it correctly.
My name is of Arabic origin, though it’s not a common one. On top of that, it’s not pronounced (in English) how it is spelled. And if there is something I have found when it comes to names, it’s that if a name isn’t pronounced how it is literally spelled, people struggle with the pronunciation. So no, I haven’t exactly been set up with an easy task.
My issue is not with those who mispronounce my name – I’ve come to expect that now and it isn’t like I don’t also mispronounce names. No, my issue is with people who don’t even make the effort to get my name right after being told the correct way to say it. Or worse, those who go one step further and decide that instead of learning to pronounce my name properly, they will instead rename me to something easier – usually an ‘English’ name.
I have had to battle to get my name pronounced properly all my life, with some luck but a lot more defeats along the way. Some of the major defeats came in my teenage years, where life is awkward enough as it is without being publicly embarrassed by teachers and students butchering your name daily. I heard pretty much every kind of variation of my name, and with some people (especially teachers), no matter how hard I tried, they would never get my name right. Even those that knew or taught me for years. I will never know if it was ignorance, maliciousness, or simply teachers having to remember a lot of students and their names.
A name being mispronounced may seem like a small thing, but when that mispronunciation is extended to a large number of people on a regular basis, it is exhausting. It also exacerbated my already-present feelings of difference and ‘otherness’ – not an easy thing to deal with when you’re a teenager. Teenage life is already riddled with enough angst and awkwardness, and my teenage life was made that much more difficult having to also navigate two opposing cultures. On the one hand I had my traditional Arab culture that didn’t always allow me to do the same things as my friends. And on the other hand, I had a British culture that encourages young people to go out there and ‘live life!’ and make mistakes.
I felt pretty different to everyone else; the ‘other’ of my friends. And my friends did try to sympathise with me not being at the parties or whatever social occasion I had missed out on, but to me their sympathy came across as pity. And this pity made me feel even more like the ‘other’, because they were unknowingly treating me differently. So, it got to the point where I used to wish I had an English name. Any other name that was easier than mine. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so different and could have one thing that was similar to my friends and peers.
I tried at the start to correct people, but at some point I decided it would probably just be easier to go along with whatever variation I was being called that day. So I gave up. And it takes a lot for a person to give up on something so key and vital to their identity. It makes you feel disheartened, lost, and as if you are somewhat less of a person than others. But that’s what years of relentless mispronunciation, and a lack of effort from people to learn or correct themselves, will do to a person.
The working world is no different. I dread starting new jobs or meeting new people at work purely because I know that I will have to go through the process of getting people to pronounce my name properly. This process can sometimes take weeks. And in a multicultural and diverse society, where ‘difficult’ names are more prevalent, this low bar for people learning how to say our names is even more inexcusable. It’s unchecked privilege. But I’ll come on to that. Of course, I’m not talking about everyone – some really make the effort to learn how to say my name and will even correct others, something I have come to appreciate more than they can know.
By far the worst though is when a person decides to give me a new ‘easier’ (read: English or Western) name. I’m not talking about nicknames amongst friends or family, but people who do not know you well enough to be giving you a new name. I’ve experienced this a couple of times, both times in a place of work. It’s an experience that leaves you deflated and utterly bewildered at the sheer audacity of it all. That a person would decide that a name is too ‘difficult’ for them and will literally give you a new name to make their interaction with you easier? The privilege is startling.
Both instances where I experienced this were by a white person, and it’s quite frankly problematic. To rename another person takes away an integral part of their identity and reinforces the inequality and power dynamic between the two of you. It reinforces the feelings of difference and otherness. It reinforces the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide. It lets that person know that you are not even willing to learn how to say their name because it’s just easier to give them a name you know. Would your life be so difficult if you learned how to pronounce someone’s name properly?
Unfortunately, I didn’t call out this behaviour at the time. Mostly out of embarrassment and just to avoid the whole awkwardness of it all. But I can’t imagine how common these feelings are for not calling out this unchecked behaviour. If it’s a regular occurrence for me, then it must happen to so many of us across the UK, and around the world. But now I’m making more of an effort now to make sure people do pronounce my name properly – and when they don’t, I correct them. I sincerely hope nobody else gives me a new name, but if they do, I will now call it out and explain to that person why it is not okay.
In the diverse and multicultural society that we live in, we all need to make more of an effort to learn how to say each other’s names. A name is a central part of a person’s identity, and to consistently mispronounce their name simply shows ignorance and carelessness on your part, and a lack of awareness for your own privilege. So, if you’re unsure on how to say someone’s name, then politely ask them and really listen, so you don’t have to keep on asking. It is basic human decency, and that person will appreciate it more than you know.
Shahed Ezaydi is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @shahedezaydi
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