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Advice / Job Search / Networking

5 Ways to Avoid Awkwardness When You Don't Know How to Pronounce Someone's Name

At least 75% of the people I meet get my name wrong. They’ll call me “Alyssa” even though my first name doesn’t have an “a” at the end, and they’ll tell me “Wow, that’s so cool your first and last name rhyme!” (They don’t).

And I know I’m not the only person who deals with this. I bet you’ve mispronounced someone’s name before, realized it, and experienced a long moment of awkwardness—a moment you’d like to never relive.

While I can’t tell you there’s some magic formula that’ll make it possible to always get it right, there are some tricks that can help. Because even something as simple as butchering a name could cost you a client or a job offer.

Here’s what I suggest you do:

1. Look for a Recording or Find a Phonetic Spelling

If you have a scheduled meeting with someone, it’s always smart to do a bit of stalking beforehand. Use this time to figure out how to pronounce his or her name. The first stop’s always YouTube, in hopes of finding footage from a panel, speech, or interview. But to be honest, that’s usually not a success. Next step: Scroll through social media to see if he provides a phonetic spelling of his name (you’d be surprised how many people do).

Another option’s going to a site like Pronounce Names or How to Pronounce. They’ll both let you search the name and offer recordings and phonetic spellings in various languages, helping you to narrow down your options.

2. Phone a Friend

Do you have a connection in common who you know well? Use it. Simply pick up the phone (no really, you can’t text this one) and ask how to pronounce the person’s name.

As long as you keep it respectful and let the person know why you’re asking (“I’d hate to go into the meeting tomorrow and offend our client,” or “I’m a bit nervous for the interview and didn’t get a chance to ask”), he or she’s probably happy to help out.

3. Really Listen During the Introduction

The best time to catch someone’s name is during your first interaction. So, be on full alert when you know the opportunity is coming, rather than focusing on other things, like how you look or what to say next.

Then, as soon as you have a chance, jot down the pronunciation in your phone so you don’t forget. Just make sure to do this casually—and not right in front of the person.

4. Avoid Saying the Name for as Long as Possible

If you’ve met and spoken with this person several times already and you’re still not sure, you probably don’t want to embarrass yourself by getting it wrong.

I come across this issue a lot. I’m so focused on the conversation—especially when I’m nervous in interviews—that I’m never focused enough to take in the pronunciation. If you’re one-on-one with the person, it’s pretty easy (and more natural) not to address the person by his or her name.

Just make sure the next time he or she says it, you actually listen.

5. Just Ask (Politely)

While this is the most obvious option, so many people skip it. But here’s the thing: Many people with unique names know it. So they’re unlikely to get offended if you straight up ask how to pronounce it.

With that said, an uncommon name to you may be very common to someone else, so make sure you’re approaching this correctly.That means you don’t start with, “I’ve never seen this name before” or “Whoa, not even going to try to say your name.”

Instead be open and honest and try these:

  • “I want to make sure I get your name right—how do you say it?”
  • “Can you tell me how to properly pronounce your name?”
  • “Would you mind saying your name again? I missed it the first time because I was distracted by [interesting thing the person was saying].”
  • “Sorry, I’m the worst, do you mind repeating your name?”

It’s less likely someone will get upset if he or she knows you’re trying to get it right, and not trying to be rude.

Regardless of which approach you choose, know that the longer you wait to find out, the more uncomfortable the situation becomes. Because at some point, you’ll reach a certain level point that not knowing it could damage your relationship and reputation. So if you find yourself getting close to that point, address it. It’ll be much easier to recover from the awkwardness of talking about it now than a huge slip-up later on.

Photo of two men talking courtesy of Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images.