Hello, My Name Is….What’s Your Name?

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To mark this year’s Inclusion Week, OD practitioner and leadership programme alumnus, Bobbie Petford, builds on the influential campaign #HelloMyNameIs, and explores the subsequent negative impact that mispronunciation or omitting names can have.

You know that chain of coffee shops that insist staff write customer names on the cups? Well, today I got ‘Bobbin’ on mine. A few weeks ago, someone called me Dobbie in several emails. I’ve also had Bobbi, Bobby and my favourite, Boobie. “So what?” I hear you say. I’ve just been misheard or mistyped. No big deal.

However, in meetings at work, when my colleague introduces himself, he of course pronounces his own name correctly, but when they reply, almost everyone mispronounces it. He says it happens all the time. He corrects people, and repeats his name, but still it happens. Another colleague says people won’t even try to pronounce his name. They laugh and tell him it’s too difficult, too exotic or too awkward. I’ve heard students in classrooms and on placements have their names repeatedly said with loud and exaggerated effort. And when this happens, I see a shadow cross their faces.

So put yourself in the shoes of patients. Imagine you’re feeling worried and upset at an appointment and the staff member mispronounces your name. Would this inspire trust or confidence in what is about to happen next?  Now imagine you’re a relative of a patient, accompanying them in hospital in a crisis or emergency, with all the clamour and clatter of a team rushing around you while you’re scared and your relative is in pain. How would you feel then if staff didn’t say yours or their name correctly?

My guess is the experience would be at least anxiety-provoking and undermining, and at worst dehumanising. So why does it happen over and over again?

Earlier this year, I read a tweet from a white academic congratulating another for successfully pronouncing a list of names in a graduation ceremony, like they’d achieved something special and difficult. When people adopt this position of privilege by making a fuss over saying names, or by not caring if they get them wrong or failing even to try to say them, they are in fact turning it into a microaggression. It may seem minor in isolation, but it is an act of superiority, supremacy and racism (Kohli and Solorzano, 2012).

Our names are important to us. They encapsulate our personal identity, and for many of us, our family connections and heritage. Think of Alex Haley’s character Kunta Kinte, an enslaved man, and how he endured beating after beating to reclaim his African name. Or the #SayHerName social movement against police brutality and gender-based violence, that arose alongside #BlackLivesMatter.

Mispronouncing or omitting names is an act of ‘othering’. If you don’t believe me, ask the people to whom it happens. Othering is a process of making people feel marginalised because of race, nationality, language, gender, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics, and it ‘propagates group-based inequality’.  (Powell and Menendian, 2017).

So imagine instead how much better it feels when it’s done well, when your name is used correctly in a circumstance when you’re distressed. Or when colleagues get your name right at work. How do you feel? Heard, understood, valued? So let’s commit to getting names right for all our colleague and our patients. Take Tracie Jolliff’s lead from her blog and call it out, become an ally.

A good example is the growing use within the NHS of bright yellow name badges with first names in large clear font, that are much easier to read at a distance or by people with visual impairment. Do you remember the influential campaign led by the late Kate Granger, to make care more compassionate and personalised, in which she encouraged healthcare staff to start all interactions with patients with:

#HelloMyNameIs

How about this Inclusion Week, we all start following it up with:

#WhatIsYourName