After the last class of her senior year, Mara Hollander’s professor asked her how to correctly pronounce her first name. Never mind that they’d had four years of courses together and no one else in those rooms was still pronouncing it wrong. Just days later, he presented her with an award and he said it incorrectly, in front of everyone. Congratulations.
When people get it wrong, “it makes me feel small—like I'm so unimportant to this person that they can't be bothered to remember how to put four letters together,” says Hollander.
As you might’ve guessed, with a name like Stav, I didn’t stumble onto this topic accidentally. Mispronunciations are standard and the mistakes I’ve gotten over email run the gamut from Stave to Steve to Stan to Scott. At Starbucks, they’ve even tried Stab. How violent do they think my parents are?
So, what are people supposed to do when the inevitable happens?
Pre-empt the Mistakes
If this happens a lot, why not try to prevent it before it happens?
Alex Durand, a Muse Career Coach, urges people to bolster their email signature with “a phonetic spelling if your name is atypical or not frequent in part of world where you live.” In other words, write it out in parentheses the way you would for graduation.
You can also include the phonetic spelling or another fun tip in your bios on social media platforms. Durand points to Celeste Ng, for example, the author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, whose Twitter handle is @pronounced_ing. Iva Dixit, a social media coordinator for The New Yorker, writes in her Twitter bio that “it's pronounced Dixit as in Fix-it; the Iva as in Gen-eva.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Correct People
“I really think the first experiment is being a lot more bold and a lot more comfortable,” Durand says. “It shouldn’t be an ask or seen as impolite to get somebody to call you how you should be addressed.”
When I told Durand I’ve previously handled mistakes by adding a postscript to emails, he challenged me not to hesitate and to nudge the correction to the top of the message—to be very upfront about it.
Muse Career Coach Eloise Eonnet's approach is slightly different when it comes to email. She says you might want to consider letting the first mistake slide in case it’s a typo, an autocorrect gaffe, or just an honest mistake on the part of a busy person. If it happens again, you can add a parenthetical (like “Eloise (with an S!)”) or a postscript (“P.S. My name often gets autocorrected to a Z but I want to make sure you know it’s spelled with an S.”).
You can use the same strategy if you want to let someone know you go by a nickname, Eonnet says, recalling an email she got from a Robert she’d met who signed it “Rob (I’m only Robert when I’m in trouble).”
Use Repetition and a Tip to Help People Remember
If you’ve ever met anyone whose name is a little more complicated and had a moment of panic when they introduced themselves, you’re not alone. Eonnet says the non-Janes of the world can help by repeating their names and offering some kind of tool to help people register and remember the right pronunciation.
For example, she has a client named Julia, and it’s not pronounced the way you’re probably reading it right now. Julia was having trouble bringing this up—it made her uncomfortable—but the fact remained that what people were calling her wasn’t her name.
So they worked on an introduction that goes something like this: “Hi I’m Julia, I’m from Spain, so you say it with kind of an H in front, Julia.” (If you’re still trying to imagine it, think like Julio or Jose.)
Practice Correcting People
“Correcting someone’s uncomfortable, so having the language ready is most important,” Eonnet says. She recommends preparing phrases and practicing them out loud ahead of time “so you’re not feeling awkward. What’s awkward is saying it for the first time.”
Don’t Give Up
If you didn’t summon the courage to correct someone the first time, or you did but they’re still getting it wrong, all hope isn’t lost. Durand urges people to be assertive, calling them out with something like, “Hey, it’s not a big deal but you’ve said my name three times and you’re still getting it wrong.”
Eonnet recommends using the language “I noticed.” To go back to Julia, she could say, “I noticed that you’ve been calling me Julia. In fact, it’s Julia, you say it with a little bit of an H in front, Julia.” You can also try, “Oh gosh you know I haven’t taken the time to tell you that in fact my name is Julia.”
Take a Deep Breath
“It’s important to remember that the people who make these mistakes are often not doing it on purpose,” Eonnet says. So as aggravating as it is that the same people tend to have to correct others all the time, she urges them to “remain tactful every single time and not let the annoyance get to you.”
“The objective when you’re communicating back to the person is not make it a big deal. Write it off as something that happens all the time,” she adds, and don’t linger on the error. “All it’s going to do is embarrass them.”
Don’t Forget When You’re on the Other Side
It may feel awkward to ask someone to repeat their name or teach you how to pronounce it. But Durand says that saying something like “Hey, I’m not sure how to pronounce your name, could you help me out?” can have the opposite effect. “It’s actually a really easy way of starting to build trust and rapport.”
Hollander obviously cares deeply about people getting her name right. But it took her some time to apply what she knows in reverse, explaining that she’s “become somewhat paranoid about using others' names in conversation—I'm terrified of pronouncing them wrong because I know how important it is to me.”
“I like when people ask me how to pronounce my name, even if I've known them for ages, because it shows me that the correct pronunciation matters to them,” she says. “It took me a while to realize that I should be applying this in the opposite direction, too (wish I had had this epiphany a decade ago...). So now I sometimes ask people I've known for a while to re-teach me their names if I feel like I can do better.”
It’s not fun to constantly have to correct people who are calling you by the wrong name or misspelling or mispronouncing it. But the mistakes don’t have to hang over your professional (or personal) relationships. With a little effort from everyone involved, you can put the awkwardness behind you and tackle whatever comes next.
Photo of people networking in an office lobby courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author