As you know, I am the child of immigrant parents. My parents came to England from Nigeria; Anambra State, to be precise. Although they didn’t equip me with a working knowledge of the language (#stillbitter), unlike many of their counterparts, they managed to resist the urge to give me an English name. Instead, they gave me an Igbo name, having thought long and hard about the meaning of that name. In Igbo culture, and many other Nigerian cultures, the naming of a child happens through a ceremony, steeped in history and tradition. A name is more than just a simple way of distinguishing one person from another. Igbo names hold significant meaning and, often, a prayer for the life of the child being named. The point is that names are important.
So, imagine my dismay when, the other day, this happened. I was about to deliver some training for a client who was introducing me to the delegates. He had already mis-pronounced my name once, so I slid him this note with the (almost) phonetic spelling of my name. As soon as I had a chance, I discreetly whispered, “I noticed that you had some difficulty with my name, so this should make it easier”. I smiled, a genuine smile at that point, to indicate that I wasn’t “being funny”. He smiled too, mouthed “sorry” and proceeded to ignore the note and mis-pronounce my name at least 3 more times, each time, choosing a completely different pronunciation, leaving the delegates most confused. Luckily, after his introduction, he left the room and I immediately reintroduced myself, stating the correct pronunciation of my name for the group. It actually wasn’t even awkward. It had to be done.
Some of you already know that my real name is not actually Cee. 🙊🙊🙊 Cee is a nickname that I have chosen to use more regularly for the purposes of social media. In my work life, I am known by the name that is on my birth certificate. I have already slightly anglicised the pronunciation of my name to make it easier for non-Igbo speaking people who, funnily enough, make up the majority of the people I tend to encounter in the workplace. It’s not actually pronounced as chee-oh-mah at all. I know, I know… but if my name is going to be butchered, at least let it be butchered in a way that I have co-signed 🤷🏾
I have another nickname, which originated via the butchering of my maiden name by an old boss, who happened to be a Black man of Caribbean heritage. He refused to learn how to say my name, insisting that it was too difficult to pronounce, being an “African” name, and eventually gave me another surname. No matter how many times I tried to get him to say it the way it should be said, practically talking him through, syllable by syllable, he remained wrong and strong. I was much younger and managed to smile my way through the jokes that he made at my expense. Forty year old me is not as forgiving.
There are many others in the public eye who have names like mine. Case in point is the incredibly Igbo named Chuka Umunna. For those of you unaware as to who he is, Chuka is the Nigerian/Anglo-Irish, The Independent Group and ex-Labour Party Member of Parliament for Streatham. I have heard Chuka’s name pronounced as “chuck-a oomoona”, “chook amoona”, “chooka oomana”… Unfortunately, the list goes on and on. (If you happen to be in any doubt as to how to pronounce his name, worry not! There is a You Tube channel that, very helpfully, tells us how!)
Love him or hate him, I very much doubt that Chuka has co-signed the various mispronunciations of his name. Maybe it irks him every time he hears someone get as close as they feel they can to the true pronunciation. Maybe he feels he has far bigger fish to fry than ensuring that his name is said correctly every time he is referenced on TV or the radio, or even in his daily life. I don’t profess to know either way. But, what I do know is that for someone to not even bother to try to say another person’s name correctly is yet another micro-aggression that goes to undermine many People of Colour with non-English names. With this kind of hindsight, one may more easily understand those immigrant parents who chose to give their children biblical-inspired names over the more traditional names from whatever region of the world they arrived into the UK from.
Things not to say to someone with a non-English sounding name when you need to say their name and are unsure:
- “I’m not even going to try to attempt that!” (often accompanied by nervous chuckling) Well, that’s just rude 😑
- “Oh. That’s a very unusual/exotic/different name!” Maybe to you, Carol, but not to me 😑
- “I’m really sorry but I can’t pronounce your name.” Yes, you can 😑
Instead, why not try to just say it as you see it. Genuinely try in the first instance, and then ask if that was correct. If they are anything like me, you may get an inkling based on how screwed up their face is. Apologise afterwards for any mispronunciation if you felt that you did a bad job, but at least try. It will be appreciated 😃
And, if you have been introduced to someone who has a name that you don’t hear very often, but you have forgotten how to pronounce that person’s name and you need to introduce that person to someone else, PLEASE either pull them aside and ask them discreetly how to pronounce their name, or allow them to introduce themselves. This can be done very simply by saying something like, “I’ll let you introduce yourselves…” or by asking the person whose name you do remember to introduce themselves first, which should lead to a natural introduction by both parties. However you do it, realise that this can only be done so often. You WILL have to find a way to remember how to pronounce the name eventually, especially if you are going to be working regularly with that person…
Kelechi Okafor, who also happens to have a very Igbo name, is a talented actress, director, business owner and social commentator, known on Twitter and Instagram as Kelechnekoff. Kelechi recently created a hilarious virtual character, Sally in HR. Sally and her “just a quick one” conversations have since gone viral. Sally is a clueless HRD who, among many other things, commonly mispronounces the names of certain employees in her organisation 😏 Sally is a caricature; however, she is based on the realities that so many of us encounter while living in a Western diaspora. From hair to food to name, we are subtly and sometimes openly attacked daily and, like the so-called Chinese water torture (which doesn’t actually originate from China btw), this constant, seemingly innocuous, drip effect can have devastating outcomes if allowed to continue.
We know that, for whatever reason, recruiters have been known to set aside CVs from applicants with hard-to-pronounce names. We know that, for whatever reason, those applicants with foreign-sounding names are less likely than their equally qualified counterparts with English, or familiar-sounding, names to be shortlisted for interview. I know of Black men and women with British names who have been invited to interview, only to be greeted by a visibly shocked interviewer who was, perhaps, expecting to see a white candidate waiting to be collected from the foyer. These things have happened and these things continue to happen…in 2019.
There is no shame in not being able to correctly pronounce a word that you have never encountered before. Do not be embarrassed that you have not got it spot on first time. I mean, no doubt the first English person to be presented with the name Tchaikovsky stuttered a little bit, yet it now rolls so elegantly off the tongues of children and adults alike. But, there is shame in not being willing to try. There is shame in lazy pronunciation. I have no patience for it. Eight times out of 10, those who try to say my name get it right and I reward them with as a big a virtual pat on the back as I can, as a way to encourage them to try again with the next person they meet.
And it is truly life-giving when I hear my name pronounced in the way it is meant to be…