I have a weird sounding (to you) name

I have a perfectly common girl’s name where I’m from. Not like Emma or Sophia, but a solid top-50 name that I don’t have to repeat twice when I order my coffee or spell out for anyone.

Not so in North America.

Here, I already know that people will not understand my name the first time I say it. It’s just not something that they expect to hear. It’s not long or particularly hard to pronounce, once you understand what I am saying, but something about it seems not to compute. So, I always have to say it at least twice. I don’t mind, really. I actually appreciate it when others make an effort to say my name correctly.

I do my best to help people remember my name and how to pronounce it. At conferences I always hold up my name tag as I say my name, and that usually helps. I put my name on every page of my handouts and slides, so students and talk attendees don’t have to to work hard to remember. On my website, part of my “personal” page is devoted to the etymology of my name, and there is even an audio of me saying it.

Another characteristic of my name is that it doesn’t end with an “-a” or “-ie” sound. In fact, it has basically all of the characteristics of a male name that are discussed in this article about boys’ and girls’ names that you should all go and read. So maybe it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that most people who have only seen my name in print assume that I am a man. That is depressingly common.

I can’t decide if I think that it helps me or not. I often think that being mistaken for a man is good for me—that people take my scholarship more seriously and judge it purely on merit. But then, more often than you might think, I meet someone for the first time, and they blurt out “oh, I thought you were a man,” and I can almost see them mentally readjusting their expectations. On the few occasions when I’ve asked why, the answer was either “it’s something about your name,” or “because you write like a man” (whatever that means). This kind of exchange always catches me off guard.

I am going to go ahead and assume that if you are a Tenure She Wrote reader, you might not say such a thing to a person. But biases are hard to get rid of, and I think many of us form opinions about someone’s gender and origin based on their name. They are important to acknowledge, as a first step to fighting the bias. Some things are easy to change. If you are introducing someone at a conference talk or at a campus visit, for the love of god, google them ahead of time so you’re not visibly surprised that they are a man/woman, and ask them how to pronounce their name instead of mangling it up in front of a large audience.

If you are a teacher and have students with unusual names, learn (or ask them to teach you) how to pronounce their names when you first meet them. Recognize that we are all likelier to pay more attention to people whose names we know. As a student, I would sometimes have the feeling that teachers were not calling on me because they didn’t remember my name. These days, I get that feeling when I raise my hand at conferences, but the moderator instead calls on “John” or “Jane.”

I wonder if perhaps all female scholars have a “weird sounding name” problem, to some degree. It seems to be a phenomenon, at least among my acquaintances, that male scholars’ names come to mind more easily than female scholars’ names. I have sat on organizing committees for conferences and colloquia where potential invitees’ names were thrown around, and the first 5-10 were invariably male. Women’s names eventually came up, but much later and sometimes only after pressure from some of the organizers that the gender balance was not quite there. This undoubtedly contributes to the all-male panel problem: we go with our first instinct, where really we should slow down and give it a bit more thought. And there is an easy way to start fighting this problem: learn to pronounce those less common names! Keep in mind that they may take a moment longer to be retrieved from memory. And give yourself that extra minute that your brain needs to do its job.

6 thoughts on “I have a weird sounding (to you) name

  1. I teach around 100 new (to me) students each semester and learn all of their names. One thing my colleagues have taught me is to ask each student to write their name, major, and one word describing them or their likes on a notecard. I wasn’t sure, but it honestly helps me better remember that a student is “Suzy who likes Great Danes” or “Baili who watches every Texas Rangers game,” which in turn helps me better learn how to pronounce names.

  2. My strategy is to not bother too much if people get my name wrong, just to laugh it off. Both my given name and my (chosen) married name are uncommon but not unusual – one can be spelt in a number of different legitimate ways, and although it is known reasonably well in Ireland, Australia where I live, the US and Europe, it is commonly pronounced slightly differently in all those plaecs. My other name sounds like a much more common, but different name. Even my pre-marital family name, although very common, had a number of different variations and people frequently chose the wrong one; and the same with my middle name. I just learnt not to care about it (unless it is on an official form, and now with more frequent internet-based forms that I complete myself, that is also less of a problem now – saves the endless spelling over the phone). It is the ME inside who is important, not the way someone pronounces or spells my name. It is just funny. Particularly when students don’t read the footnote on the handouts and try their own variations of spelling. Quite sweet, really.

  3. I do have a strangely troublesome last name for people — ‘Nebus’ — and if I have the chance I try to warn people who need to pronounce my name of the way to do it. (Stress on the first syllable, with it sounding like the major leg joint; second syllable like the public transportation option.) Unfortunately I don’t often know where or when to give advice to, and there’s just this sudden awkward silence as someone comes to my last name and freezes up.

  4. When I was a kid and my grandmother was still alive, she could never pronounce my name correctly. It’s a relatively uncommon English name, but she learned English as an adult and never got the hang of one of the phonemes. Since then, my name has been mispronounced thousands of times. I have a minor speech defect, so when I’m tired I’ll even mispronounce it myself. Maybe it was my grandmother mispronouncing it, but hearing my name mispronounced never really bothered me. Not everyone is a native English speaker and some people do have speech problems.

    Most people I know are terrible at remembering names. I’ve seen a lot of teachers use a variety of aids to try and keep track of who is in their classroom. I remember one professor of Russian economics who had me down with the phrase “wisenheimer” or wise ass. I probably wasn’t meant to see that, but he got my name right.

  5. Pingback: Linkfest: 7 December 2015 | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

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