What’s in a name?

2 Oct

I recently had the opportunity to work with MBA students again this past month.
It’s a team building program my colleague runs at the beginning of the term, and it wisely includes a diversity session.
We use that session as an opportunity to challenge assumptions and recognize our lenses, which is particularly useful as the students get to know each other and build (in most cases) the team that they will be working with for the term.

Every time I participate in these team building days as the diversity facilitator, I learn something fascinating.
This past month was no exception.

During the introductions of one of the sessions, one student introduced himself and then told us this was his English name – a name that was suggested to him by a professor in a pre-MBA program. We were all astonished. When I was teaching in the mid nineties we were having this discussion. At that time school secretaries were still changing the names of students who arrived with names they couldn’t pronounce. But I was shocked that in 2013, in a global economy, an adult was being advised to do the same, for the same reason.

This student was offered three suggestions to consider, and after researching the meanings, he chose one. The group asked him how he felt about this, and his first response was “Is my name that hard to pronounce?”. The group consensus was that it wasn’t. This led to a segue discussion about power and names, which was dynamic and thought provoking. 

In the end, I’m embarrassed to say that I can remember his English name, but not his birthname. True, he used his English name more. True, I don’t speak his native language, so the name won’t stick in my brain the same as for a language I speak. And true, I had over 100 students come through my session that day. But these are poor excuses.

Names are an important part of who someone is, and in a diverse world (and work environment) it behooves us to take the time to learn the names of our colleagues and pronounce them properly. People who move to North America from countries whose language is not English have the same issue learning names that are common here and which include pronunciations that are foreign to them. We expect that they will learn our names without giving it a second thought (because English is such an easy language?!). We should afford them the same courtesy. And by this I mean taking it upon ourselves to really learn someone’s name, so we get it right when we address them; so they don’t have to keep correcting us, or live with hearing some vague semblance of their name and grinning and bearing it. 

See more.

Copyright 2013 Annemarie Shrouder 
Author, speaker and facilitator on issues of diversity and inclusion.


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