My ‘unusual’ name is not yours to adapt, and here’s why…

After Twitter sparked conversation around the struggles that people with an 'unusual' name have to deal with, here are 5 things NOT to say...

Long live Twitter – we live for the drama. But sometimes everyone’s favourite battleground provokes some serious contemplation. This weekend did just that, after 2019 Love Island contestant Lucie accused fellow Islander Yewande of bullying her during their time in the villa. Yewande responded by sharing how Lucie repeatedly refused to say her name correctly: in one instance, after Yewande patiently corrected her again, Lucie replied with “yeah whatever, you know what I mean”. In her Tweet, Yewande wrote on how she had experienced “names-based micro-aggressions” since childhood, had recently decided to “stop trying to make others comfortable at my own expense”, and highlighted how Lucie’s dismissal of her name was a move that stripped her of her identity. 

I know how that feels. When I was in secondary school and walked into a classroom to see a supply teacher I wasn’t familiar with, my heart sank a little – and not just because of schoolwork. To start the lesson, they’d bring up the register. I, along with everyone else in the class with an ‘unusual’ name, would wait for them to get through the Toms and Beths, even the Xaviers, until they got to one they didn’t recognise. One hesitant butchering of pronunciation later and that would be the name we had to answer to that day, both from the teacher who’d usually forget our corrections and from fellow students who thought echoing the mispronunciation was funny. 

It was only when I read into how common it was for people to experience these microaggressions that I realised the feeling of deep unease every time I waited for another teacher to ignore my name wasn’t just me being overdramatic. 

So, here are 5 things you should never say or do to someone with an “unusual” name, brought to you by people who have had to deal with these exact scenarios their entire life. 

A A Ron GIFs | Tenor

“I’ll just call you- *insert an unsolicited nickname here*” 

No, you absolutely will not. 

Announcing that you’ve decided to rename your new acquaintance isn’t cute or endearing – all it does is reveal that you can’t be bothered to learn their actual name and assume they’re fine with you coming up with your own. Suad has always had to fend off shortenings of her (already very short) name: people will often declare that they’ll “just call you Sue!”, as if that’s the same thing.

After adapting her name in English to accommodate for an Arabic vowel that would be hard for non-Arabic speakers to pronounce, she finds it incredibly annoying that some still refuse to make the effort to say her name properly, despite already making it easier for them. She also highlighted that there’s a significant difference between assigning a friend a cute nickname, and shortening her name without asking first: shortening your best mate Rebecca to Becky is sweet, giving someone totally different names to their own is not. 

Avoid saying the name at all costs

For Hayoung, the worst thing people did was very obviously avoid saying her name, even if it meant ignoring her in group situations. She went an entire academic term with seminar groups who, at the end of the year, had to ask how to pronounce her name because they had said it so rarely in the conversation. Hayoung, like many others, considered finding a new English name or nickname to avoid alienation. 

When you have an ‘unusual’ name, you accept that people will need correcting, and that’s fine. Nobody will be angry if you have to ask for a reminder on the pronunciations – if anything, it’s a nice change to be asked first rather than have to awkwardly correct. 

How An Unusual Name Shapes How People See You

“That’s not how it should be pronounced!”

Right… ‘Scuse me for thinking I know how to say my own name. 

After having my surname pronounced wrong since school (people said it phonetically as Now-shin rather than the correct No-shin) and my attempts at correction fell flat, I just accepted the new version – especially when some insisted that it had to be pronounced the phonetic way because the correct way didn’t make sense to them.

Suad noticed the same behaviour when some people change a name they aren’t familiar with because “it just sounds right this way!”, prioritising their opinion over the actual correct pronunciation. And it seems this arrogance (we’ll call it what it is) branches out to names that are still European, but just not English. Despite her corrections, Caoimhe (Kee-va) found that she’s often met with “it can’t be pronounced like that, it doesn’t make sense!”. Time and time again, people assume they know more about her name than she does, despite her attempts at educating them on the Gaelic roots.

Laugh when someone else mispronounces it

Awkwardness turns to pain when others in the room audibly laugh at the mispronunciation or make a joke out of it. At school, every time a new supply teacher came in the group of lads in the corner would jump in to declare a mispronounced version as the correct one, knowing that the subjects of these jokes had little choice but to play along at risk of looking too sensitive. 

For Chimuko, her classmates doing the opposite has had a lasting impact on her. She told me that when a sub went for the common mispronunciation of “Cucumber”, her fellow pupils stepped in to save her the awkwardness and corrected them. She’s still had to deal with unsolicited shortenings or variations since then, but the classmates who spoke up for her and those who ask before they attempt her name now, are a welcome change we wish would happen more often. 

Have you mispronounced someone's name? Here's what to do next |

“Ugh I’ll never learn that, it’s too difficult for me!” 

For Kajol, the idea that names are “too difficult” for someone is a sign of disrespect and laziness, rather than honesty. While there’s nothing wrong with genuine mistakes if a name isn’t clearly phonetic, “it’s extremely infuriating when the person finds it funny that they are repeatedly pronouncing your name wrong.  It really isn’t that funny to ridicule the ‘foreign sounding’ letters in someone’s name, even if you are otherwise friendly to them.”

As a third-generation Indian, Kajol shared that it “upsets [her] to this day that [her] grandparents were given completely different names from their own when they went to work” to make it ‘easier’ for their colleagues. To suggest that someone’s name is just too much effort for you to learn, and taking it upon yourself to make up your own variation “will always be disrespectful”.. 

And if these five steps feel like too much to get on board with, just remember: if you can sing along to Mary Poppins’ “supercalifragilisticexpialadocious” with earnest, then you can learn how to say names too – no excuses.