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What is in a name? Be curious enough to ask.

I have a confession; I find it incredibly uncomfortable correcting people when they mispronounce my name. I have recently taken on new role, which is an exciting time, but also brings back my anxieties about my name. I start to think about how I will manoeuvre the many predictable awkward moments when I will need to interrupt someone in mid flow to correct them. Or worse, live with the internal turmoil of kicking myself for not being brave enough to do it from the start.

One of the first conversations I had in the new company was with a colleague who had also struggled with the same issue but had kindly asked me up front how to pronounce my name. I was impressed and felt immediately welcome and understood by his great levels of cultural competency and warmth.

He explained that some of his colleagues had gone as far as to change the spelling of their names for them to be pronounced correctly, shortened their names to an acronym, or taken on an English sounding name at work to make it easier for others.

I nearly fell off my chair when I heard these stories, which is a strange reaction given my own first-hand experiences around desperately wanting to ‘fit in’ as a child. I remember begging my parents day in, day out to change my name from Ayo to Laura.

Eventually they gave in to my constant emotive appeals, and I was known as Laura at school until I had another change of heart and transferred it back to Ayo some years later, and the mispronunciations continued.

The most profound recent example was when I got married back in 2018, although the marriage officiant asked me several times beforehand how it was pronounced (which I appreciated), when it came to the ceremony, they got it so wrong, again and again throughout the service, and I was too embarrassed to correct them.

Going forward I am challenging myself to be brave and to share my own experiences with others around my name.

Race Equality Week is coming up 7-13 February 2022 and amongst it’s recommended initiatives is a campaign called #mynameis, which drives inclusion by normalising phonetic spelling.

They share that 88% of respondents from more than 100 organisations thought a phonetic name spelling campaign would help tackle race inequality. I often struggle with names from different cultures to my own and know that I would definitely appreciate it, and now ask how a person’s name is pronounced up front if I am unsure to try and stop the cycle. I have added the phonetic pronunciation of my name to my work signature and encourage others to do it too.

So, whether you have had your name mispronounced regularly, or are unsure of how to say someone's name, know you are not alone, and it’s never too late to reclaim your name, or learn someone else's.

Collectively we can all do something to help people feel included and welcome like my colleague did for me, if we pause and be curious enough to ask.

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