I once chaired a meeting in which a new team member had a South Asian name that I found difficult to pronounce. I attempted to pronounce it, then apologized in a lighthearted tone for my mispronunciation. A meeting attendee - who is white - texted me that my joking statement was an offensive microaggression, which prompted me to reflect on how name mispronunciation impacts the workplace.
My whole life, my last name has rarely been pronounced correctly. I was born and raised in Canada. My parents chose my first name, “Susanna”, for its ease of pronunciation, but I still had a Korean surname. During childhood and adulthood, jokes, teasing or bullying involving my last name was so common that I expected it when meeting someone for the first time. Even now, people frequently assume my last name is pronounced as “Hugh” rather than “Huh”. On the phone, when asked my last name, I automatically respond “Huh, spelled H-u-h” to prevent mispronunciation, misspelling, or an unwelcome joke.
Routine mispronunciation of names contributes to “othering,” and harms our ability to create an inclusive workplace, yet it remains incredibly common. I bet we can all think of colleagues whose names are frequently mispronounced, or who are using English nicknames in the workplace instead of their legal names. In one study, 31% of Black and 40% of Asian university students reported “whitening” their resumes to enhance job prospects: they used a middle name or anglicized name different from their legal or preferred name, or omitted experiences that could provide racial cues. Fears that ethnic names harm career development are warranted: in a Canadian study, resumes with a Chinese, Indian or Pakistani name were 20 to 40% less likely to lead to an employer call for an interview. At a time when anti-Asian violence is on the rise, the impact of positive actions to stop othering extends beyond the workplace.
Fortunately, voices like Vice President Kamala Harris and comedian Hasan Minhaj have spoken out about the importance of name pronunciation, and each of us can take action today to make our workplace more inclusive. Some suggestions:
- Ask colleagues how their name is pronounced. Repeat it back to them, and write the phonetic pronunciation in your contacts list. If you forgot to do that the first time, it’s never too late to say, “I don’t know how to pronounce your name properly, and I want to get it right. How is it pronounced?” If someone says my name is “x”, but you can call me “English nickname”, ask them which name they prefer, and use that one - pronounced correctly.
- During meetings, be an ally in pointing out the correct pronunciation of a colleague’s name. Find out how the new team member or speaker’s name is pronounced before you introduce them. I have given many invited talks where the introducer mispronounced my name. I should have provided the phonetic pronunciation in written materials ahead of each talk, but this idea didn’t occur to me, perhaps because I was internally resigned to mispronunciation as a fact of life.
- Other examples of microaggressions to avoid include asking people questions about what their name means (Would you ask Emily or John what their name means?), or making assumptions about English proficiency based on names. When my husband applied to one graduate school, he received a phone call that his score was missing for the TOEFL, a test of English proficiency. My husband was raised in Canada and is a native English speaker. The assumption that he needed to pass a TOEFL was likely based on his Asian last name.
- To me, the effort to try is more important than a perfect pronunciation, because some sounds are difficult for non native-speakers to pronounce. Despite practicing Spanish for 3 years in high school, I still can’t roll my “r”s. I can’t pronounce a name perfectly if it requires a rolled “r”, but I can still try my best.
I grew up feeling grateful that my parents had given me an English first name, so that I would have one less name to be teased about. Let’s strive to build a world where no future parents have to choose names based on this worry.
Susanna Huh, MD MPH is a Medical Director and Global Clinical Lead at Takeda Pharmaceuticals. She is a member of the WEST Advisory Board.