Worried about mispronouncing someone’s name? Here’s how to avoid an awkward moment

Bjork’s name is frequently mispronounced outside of Iceland.
Bjork’s name is frequently mispronounced outside of Iceland.
Image: Reuters/Alessia Pierdomenico
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Chances are you’re pronouncing Björk’s name wrong.

Journalists and fans alike frequently pronounce the Icelandic musician’s name  be-york. But as Björk herself has repeatedly explained in interviews, her name is actually pronounced be-yerk.

Hearing others botch your name again and again is an unfortunately common predicament for many immigrants, people of color, and others whose names are unfamiliar in the dominant culture where they live. And while it might seem like a relatively minor issue, a recent viral post on LinkedIn explains that mispronouncing someone’s name can make them feel excluded, devalued, and dismissed.

Human resources analyst Damneet Kaur wrote on LinkedIn:

Yesterday, I was in a meeting in which the host went over the attendance and I knew it was time for them to say my name because they started the sentence with, “I might butcher this…”, and then proceeded to do exactly that, “butcher” my name. As I turned on my microphone to introduce myself, my pronouns, and the correct pronunciation of my name, I felt the same embarrassing energy I have felt since moving to the US at the age of 5, where it has always felt like no one knows how to say my name.

Thankfully, Kaur writes, there’s an easy way to avoid garbling someone’s name. Just ask them for the correct pronunciation—before you attempt to say it yourself.

Why correct name pronunciation matters

There’s not much research into how name mispronunciations affect people’s experiences in the workplace. But studies have found that students with teachers who fail to learn how to say their names correctly report feeling disrespected or ashamed. “Names have incredible significance to families, with so much thought, meaning and culture woven into them,” Rita Kohli, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, told Quartz back in 2016. “When the child enters school and teachers—consciously or not—mispronounce, disregard or change the name, they are in a sense disregarding the family and culture of the students as well.”

People who hear their colleagues consistently mispronounce their names may also worry about how it will affect their careers, says Ruchika Tulshyan, who wrote an article on name mispronunciation for Harvard Business Review last year and is the author of the forthcoming management book Inclusion on Purpose.

“I’ve anecdotally heard from people who are like, ‘You know, if my name is hard to pronounce or unfamiliar, then I’m not going to be the one selected for this big stretch project or a promotion,” Tulshyan says. She herself has had situations “where managers don’t want to say my name, or they don’t want to make eye contact because then they’re worried they’ll have to say my name.” A person who doesn’t get called on in meetings or introduced to a visiting colleague simply because their coworkers don’t want to embarrass themselves is bound to have fewer opportunities.

All this means that name pronunciation isn’t just a matter of politeness. It’s also a diversity and inclusion issue. “Pronouncing someone’s name correctly is actually a form of showing allyship and solidarity and practicing anti-racism,” Tulshyan says.

What to do if you don’t know how to say someone’s name

It’s impossible for anyone to know intuitively how to pronounce all names correctly. “It’s not like I know every non-Western name; there are thousands of cultures around the world,”  Tulshyan notes.

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification about how someone pronounces their name, Tulshyan continues. Indeed, chances are they’ll appreciate it rather than cringing internally as you haplessly muddle through.

If asking the question feels awkward, that’s part of the deal: “When you think about really practicing inclusion, it often means that you might have to do things that are unfamiliar,” Tulshyan says.

If you’re not sure how to phrase the question, Kaur suggests several options that could work when introducing someone in a group setting:

  • “I may mispronounce your name because it is new to me, so I will spell it out and let you introduce yourself.”
  • “There is a name in this room I do not know how to pronounce and I would be grateful if you could teach us how to correctly pronounce your name.”

In one-on-one interactions, Tulshyan suggests simply asking, “Could you please pronounce it for me?”

In all cases, Tulshyan recommends “listen[ing] carefully to where the person puts emphasis, and where the inflections are. Repeat after them once or twice, not more.” When you repeat their name, ask them if you’re saying it correctly, and make a note of the phonetic pronunciation afterward if it’s someone you’ll be talking to again.

Keep the conversation brief

Tulshyan also advises avoiding follow-up questions or comments about the other person’s name. Even theoretically complimentary remarks (“How beautiful! Is that Japanese?”) may make the other person feel more self-conscious and singled out in the moment. She says it’s not necessary to apologize profusely for a mispronunciation, either, since that “can turn into me comforting them that they got it wrong.”

A better way of making introductions

If you can’t ask someone about the correct pronunciation of their name directly, here are some other approaches to try.

LinkedIn offers a feature that allows users to click on a person’s name and hear them pronouncing it. Tulshyan says she uses the service NameDrop to attach a recording of her name pronunciation to her email signature.

There are also sites like PronounceNames, which allows users to type in a name and access a database of recordings. This isn’t failsafe solution, however, as name pronunciations can still vary within a culture.

That’s why the best option may be to let people introduce themselves across the board. As Tulshyan notes, the pronunciation of certain traditionally white, Western names can vary widely too. Letting each person tell us how they say their names, she says, is one way “to give each other grace.”

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