Thursday, April 25, 2013


For years, I have been called any number of different names. Often anything other than my real one. I was blessed by my parents with both a first and last name that are difficult to pronounce. People look at it, you can see their mind working through the different syllables, and then they guess. 

Most often:

“Kristin Lee”

“Kerrr-sten Lie”

Or some combination of the two. Sometimes I get “Lein” as a last name, because they mistake the “n” for an “h.” Sometimes they have heard it before, and I see the wheels turning as they try to remember which one it is.

I correct people, but not necessarily all of the time. This bugs my mom, who feels I should always correct someone. I don’t care if they say it or spell it correctly on my to-go coffee cup – I just want my drink. But if it is someone I am likely going to interact with again, I’ll make the correction.

I got into the habit for a while of introducing myself and including a tug on my ear to teach folks that, although it could be pronounced a number of different ways, my particular variation is pronounced “K-ear-stin.” That usually works. Although back in high school, I had an English teacher (feels ironic) who added in an extra syllable every time she said it, as she was trying to make sure that she had the “ear” in there. More like “Kee-ear-stin.” She was trying so hard that it was actually a little charming. Just not quite right.

When teaching folks my last name, I either say “Lay – like the potato chip” or “Lei – like the Hawaiian flower necklace.” Visual comparisons are key.

Why do I share this story? Because there was an interaction about names that has stuck with me and I thought it was worthy of a conversation.

Awhile back, I was at an event where I overheard two people being introduced to each other. I heard one individual say their name, and then the other responded with a nervous laugh followed by, "I am not even going to try to pronounce that one.”

I will pause for a minute so that you can re-read that. 

You may or may not have already guessed this, but the first individual was from a different country and spoke with an accent. Although it wasn't said, the subtext I heard was “Your accent is hard to understand, and I am uncomfortable. My response is to avoid trying to say your name. And I am laughing as I tell you in the hopes that you will not call me out on that.”

Now, I have full confidence that this particular individual is a kind and caring person. I understand that may not have been the intent of this person at all to offend anyone, or be hurtful. But imagine what it must feel like to hear someone effectively say to you, "“It is not worth my time to try to learn to say your name correctly.” That blows my mind. And I bet it happens often.    

Names are very personal. Often, a major part of a person’s identity. There is a story behind them. Maybe it is a family name. Or it came from someone’s parents’ favorite character/singer/actor, etc. back in the day. I haven’t named a kid, but we have one cat named after my favorite mascot, and another named after our favorite singer’s kid. Call us weird, we own it. Names are important. They were given with much thought and a whole lot of love. 

I want to own, that I struggle with pronouncing others names too. Sometimes it takes me a long time to get one down.

I also want to own that I am speaking from a place of privilege. People make more of an effort to learn mine than they might someone else’s because I am a middle-class white American. And I am more likely to correct someone than someone else who might be experiencing a different power dynamic.

But here’s the thing. Those of us with a more challenging, not-quite-so-pretty-on-paper, name, deserve to hear our names spoken in all of their beauty. Whether it is a Polish name with lots of extra letters that don’t always make a ton of sense, or a Saudi Arabian name that includes many syllables. I think each of us has the responsibility to ask someone if we aren’t sure, rather than guessing, or avoiding it all together. That is a sign of respect.

On my end, knowing I have a more challenging name, I try to give people room to learn my name, while making a few mistakes. I get multiple e-mails a week addressed to Kirsten or Kristin. It’s annoying when someone has my signature in the previous e-mail. But I move on. And I let it go. Sometimes I get an apology e-mail soon after, sometimes not. We probably have all spelled someone’s name incorrectly before. I just try to catch it and apologize right away.

When it comes to my spoken name, I give many chances. But at some point, I stop correcting it. Because it gets exhausting. And I feel disrespected. It is a wall that I put up. And perhaps that isn’t fair. So I will commit to taking the opportunity to start correcting folks, even if it has been some time.

I would also ask that if I have been mispronouncing your name, I hope that you feel comfortable telling me. But I also understand if you don’t. Please accept my sincere apologies. And know that I will try harder.

I think that is really what it is all about. The trying is the most important part.    

1 comment:

  1. Story of my life! I'll take your advice and continue schooling people on how to say my name correctly.


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