It’s Pronounced Yoh-VAH-Na

Identity, names and pronunciation matter, writes Jovana Milosavljevic Ardeljan.

September 12, 2022
A person in a pink shirt holds up a piece of paper with a question mark printed on it in front of their face.
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Pronouncing a person’s name correctly matters, especially in professional situations. Yet those of us with names that may be considered “unusual,” “foreign” or “difficult to pronounce” constantly find ourselves hearing our names uttered using a myriad of creative, usually well-intended but quite incorrect, pronunciations. In such situations, we have two potential courses of action: 1) we can correct people and hope they’ll remember it or 2) we can let it go and thus tacitly agree to accept those new versions of how our names are pronounced.

It’s a tough choice, and neither answer feels good or right. When I taught first-year composition for multicultural students, I saw all too often that my students went by a Western name such as John or Charlotte even though my roster said Peiling or Xiaoquiong.

As someone whose name is regularly mispronounced, I think a lot about names, the act of naming and how people pronounce names. When I had my daughter three years ago, coming up with a name was much harder than it would have been if I lived in my home country of Serbia. Giving her a Serbian name was important to my husband and me. However, in order to spare her from having to go through our recurring experiences of hearing own names garbled, my husband and I came up with a list of Serbian names that we thought would not be difficult to pronounce to Americans. We then asked our American friends to read the list out loud to see how they would pronounce each name. Even though we love the name we gave her, Lenka, I’m sad to say it’s not the name I always imagined I would give my daughter—my grandma’s name, Ljubica—because that name would be butchered here.

Identity Matters

A name is a core part of one’s personal identity, and it often embodies a sense of national, cultural and family belonging, as it has a meaning rooted in them. For me, personally, my first and last name are part of who I am; they represent and summarize everything I’ve achieved and a collection of my different “I ams.” (I am a woman, mother, partner, daughter, friend, scholar, humanist, nature lover and so on.)

In an effort to raise awareness of the postdoc community, the National Postdoctoral Association asked postdocs to submit a recorded 60-second video sharing who they are beyond being postdocs. The recording included saying your name followed by “I am” and then a list of chosen identities. That illustrates how names are symbols for our complex selves. Just as a close-enough password won’t access your bank account, no one should assume that a close-enough pronunciation is acceptable for someone’s name. It has to be right.

Names Matter

In the era of COVID and Zoom meetings, we often begin meetings by asking people to introduce themselves and then call on the next person. You can guess who gets called last in most of the meetings that I join. The ambiguous “J” in my first name and the consonants in my last name are kryptonite for many people.

For my own amusement, I call this practice the “avoiding game.” And this kind of bias and avoidance has far deeper consequences in other contexts. For example, efforts to understand bias in the hiring process show that women and minoritized groups are more often discriminated against, and people’s CVs are routinely passed over, because their names are traditionally associated with Black or other cultures.

To avoid that kind of unfairness at the gatekeeper phase of hiring and admissions, professionals must strive to become comfortable encountering—and pronouncing—names that are different, outside one’s own cultural context, unfamiliar or difficult to pronounce. Of course, that isn’t always easy, and it is uncomfortable when you aren’t sure how to pronounce someone’s name, but you can find ways to go about it. For those who would like to learn what to do when you’re unsure about the pronunciation of someone’s name, Ruchika Tulshyan, a journalist, author and the founder of an inclusion strategy firm, provides helpful advice.

Pronunciation Matters

After eight years of living in the United States, I finally have the confidence to correct anyone who mispronounces my name—which may sound trivial, but most people whose names are mispronounced often don’t feel they can do that. As a result, I am finding that those in my professional network seem to feel more comfortable, especially if we are in a situation where they have to introduce me or invite me to go next in the Zoom conversation. As a consequence, I feel more visible and have a greater sense of belonging. I am comfortable advocating for my own name, and I think everyone should feel similarly empowered.

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What upsets me the most is how commonly people turn their own mispronunciation into humor. I don’t understand why they think it’s funny that they can’t say my name properly. If you introduce my colleagues as Ms. Anderson, Mr. Perry and Dr. Smith, why should you call me Dr. Joovanna (mispronounced!) or even worse Dr. Yoka (a nickname used by my friends)? If I were to pronounce people’s names relying on the phonetics of my first language, Jessica would be /yeseeka/, Cari would be /tzaree/ and Michael would be /meetzhaael/. I’ve been thinking about doing a social experiment and starting to pronounce people’s names like that, just to see how they would react.

It’s thanks to Maureen Crawford Hentz, a human resources and recruitment guru, that I finally feel encouraged and empowered to always correct people when they mispronounce my name. She explains why it’s important to do that, after seeing for years people not being called in for an interview because of their names, despite the fact that they might have been the strongest candidate. Here is what I’ve learned from Maureen and my own experience.

Do it right. Because they’re so familiar, we all tend to say our own first and last names quickly and without enunciating carefully. What Ms. Crawford Hentz advises is when we are introducing ourselves, we need to say the first name clearly (and not under your breath), stop, count to one and then do the same with the last name. It may sound funny, but I literally practiced this until it stopped sounding awkward.

Whenever I have an opportunity now to speak to students, for example during orientation, I take time to model it. I say my name, pause and say my last name. Then I repeat it, and then I point out what I did and why. I encourage everyone who works with students—and not just international students—to do the same, regardless of whether your name is easy to pronounce or not. What may seem easy and common to you may not be so for others.

Correct immediately. I know this recommendation is easier said than done, but it’s really important to correct people the first time they make a mistake—and this means everyone and anyone. It shouldn’t matter whether it is your adviser, professor, university president, an interviewer for your dream job or someone a friend just introduced you to. If you don’t do it the first time, it will keep on happening, and it’s going to feel more and more awkward and like an opportunity you missed.

So, as soon as you hear your name butchered, immediately jump in and say, “It’s actually pronounced …” Or if someone is introducing you and you cannot react immediately, as soon as they turn to you to speak, begin by saying something like, “Thank you for the introduction. I’m just going to correct how my name is pronounced—it’s …”

Use phonetic transcription. In my email signature, I have a phonetic transcription of my name. I have heard from many people how great they think it is that I included that. And I appreciate that people notice it and pay attention to it. I did the same on my LinkedIn profile. It may not look neat, but I feel that it really speaks to what kind of person I am: if something is wrong, I will call it out. A couple of years ago, LinkedIn added a great feature of being able to add a short recording of how your name is pronounced. Definitely make use of that tool if your name is often mispronounced. You may also find Name Coach a helpful tool.

I’ll finish by saying that I know it often feels uncomfortable or even impossible to correct someone, especially when there’s a difference in position or power. But along with educating other people, you may learn something important: if someone treats you differently because you corrected them, it says a lot about that person and may serve you well to know it in advance.

My own experience has been that most people are fine with being corrected and, in fact, usually grateful that I helped them get it right. So how we imagine people might feel about our correcting them might be just in our own heads. Start with yourself: How do you feel when someone corrects you about something that’s important to them?

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The blue and white logo of the Graduate Career Consortium.Jovana Milosavljevic Ardeljan is director of career and professional development at the Graduate School of the University of New Hampshire. She does research on professional development and communication skill development for graduate students and postdocs that supports their career diversification pathways. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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