A Word
December 10, 2019

Stop Letting Your Co-Workers Mispronounce Your Name

And don’t let them give you an unwanted nickname, either.

My full name is Tobenna (pronounced toe-BEN-naa) Olisajindu (oh-liss-ah-jin-DEW) Anthony Egbuna (egg-BOO-nuh). My name comes from the Igbo tribe of Nigeria, and it means Praise God. For as long as I can remember, I’ve gone by Toby. Even my parents call me Toby; on the rare occasions when they called me Tobenna, I knew I was in trouble.

Growing up in North Carolina, not a lot of my classmates had ethnic names. Up until high school, I was honestly embarrassed of my name. In middle school, I remember walking up to substitute teachers before classes and telling them that I go by Toby so I wouldn’t have to deal with them mispronouncing my name as they called attendance. On the days when I couldn’t get to the teachers early enough, I’d inevitably have to hear my classmates laughing and making fun of me and my name. At one point, I even tried to disown my name completely, responding “I don’t know” when classmates or teachers asked me how Tobenna is pronounced in an attempt to avoid any teasing.

It really wasn’t until college that I began to own my name and, ultimately, my heritage. College was the first time I was consistently around people from other backgrounds and cultures. Everyone seemed to be so proud of where they’d come from because it made them stand out; it made them different.

Keep the same energy

Despite my experiences with people mispronouncing my name in grade school, the inspiration for this article actually didn’t come from my own name; rather, it came from watching two co-workers’ introductory interactions. The first co-worker’s name is Oseghale (pronounced OH-seh-gah-lay). Oseghale is also a Nigerian-born US immigrant. The second co-worker’s name is Laura (pronounced (law-rah; “aw” as in “cow”). Laura was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but she currently lives in the Northeast US. Using the hypothetical partner Susan, below is a short overview of how most of the introductions I’ve seen for both Oseghale and Laura go:

Oseghale
Susan: Hi! I’m Susan.
Oseghale: I’m Oseghale. Nice to meet you.
Susan: What was that?
Oseghale: Oseghale.
Susan: One more time, sorry I didn’t catch that.
Oseghale: Oseghale.
Susan: Oh! Got it. Nice to meet you.
Laura
Susan: Hi! I’m Susan.
Laura: I’m Laura (Spanish pronunciation). Nice to meet you.
Susan: Laura, you said? (English pronunciation)
Laura: Close, it’s Laura (Spanish pronunciation)
Susan: *trying and failing to pronounce it correctly* Laura?
Laura: You got it (Susan didn’t get it). Nice to meet you.

Almost immediately after first meeting Oseghale, I asked him if he had a nickname or another name he goes by at work, simply because I knew people would have difficulty pronouncing his name. His response:

“Nope. If they can pronounce Schwarzenegger, they can definitely pronounce Oseghale. They have to keep the same energy.”

No further questions.

I’ve also asked Laura about her name and how she handles people mispronouncing it. Now, I (slightly ashamed) need to confess something here: to this day I don’t think that I’ve ever pronounced Laura’s name correctly. I’m not a linguistics or language expert, but there are certain things that people won’t be able to pronounce or comprehend based on their upbringing, and that’s okay. She often tries to guide people to the correct pronunciation by saying “Laura” in the English pronunciation to help them visualize the word. Her understanding that her name is different from the norm, and her willingness to help her co-workers along show that Laura understands the limitations some people will have, but that she also does appreciate people trying to pronounce her name correctly.

Why it matters

Your name is typically the first thing that someone learns about you. Especially in the workplace, where we spend so much of our time, it’s critical that something as foundational to your identity as your name is established correctly.

More and more companies are promoting their open company cultures, claiming to have work environments where employees can be “truly human” or where employees can “bring their whole selves to work.” How can you have that type of environment if people aren’t being addressed by their real names? For professionals like myself with ethnic names, introducing yourself should be a gateway to people learning about our cultures and backgrounds.

I wrote before about the concept of culture fit and how companies should begin to look for culture add. Look to find people that are different from the status quo at your company, and learn about their upbringing, their backgrounds, and their experiences. For a company to have an accepting culture, its employees must be willing to get out of their comfort zones, and a great step towards getting there is to try pronouncing a name that is unfamiliar to them. A conscious effort will most likely be valued by your co-workers, and that effort invites them to be open about where they come from, ultimately bolstering an inclusive culture.

Names are introductions to people and their cultures. When I introduce myself as Toby Egbuna, people often ask where I’m from, and I love explaining to them that I’m from Nigeria. It makes me different from the rest of the people that I work with; it means I bring a unique perspective to the team, and that is something that should be celebrated.

So, to all my people working through their careers with foreign, unique, ethnic, long, hard-to-spell, and hard-to-say names: own it. Be proud of your name and be proud of who you are. Assuming you have co-workers that appreciate your culture, they’ll be interested in learning more about your culture. And if they’re not… well… there’s always Dyversifi to help you find a company that does! :)

P.S. — This subject goes beyond just verbal conversations. I always correct people that mis-spell my name in emails or in a Skype chat. No, it’s not Tobe, Tobey, Tobi, or Tony; it’s Toby — It’s honestly surprising how often I have to do this in email threads seeing as how my name is clearly typed out in both my email signature and just about every salutation I send, but I digress.

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