What’s in a name? Names are our first sense of identity. We start an interaction by stating our name. However, many names are mispronounced regularly. Pronouncing someone’s name correctly is a basic form of respect. If we can take the time to understand one’s pronouns, we should also take the same time and effort to pronounce one’s name correctly. A common saying in current pop culture is, “If you can say ‘Daenarys Targaryean’ correctly, then you can learn to say my name.” Name mispronunciation is a common occurrence in any setting, including healthcare, although it shouldn’t be. Correct pronunciation is the first step we take in building a relationship with our patients.
During my psychiatry rotation, a patient presented for severe depression and arrived at the emergency department after she felt overwhelmed by her life and felt she was no longer able to adapt. She corrected every member of her health care team — including me — on the proper pronunciation. Every time her name was mispronounced, she became more upset and frustrated, believing that the mispronunciation of her name added to her troubles. She repeatedly expressed that her name was all she had for herself while she was admitted, overwhelmed by her diagnosis and treatment.
I understood what she meant. I understood that she did not feel seen. I understood her frustration that this would not be the last time she would have to request for her name to be pronounced correctly. I understood the weariness of having to shoulder the identity of another name that was not hers. Every mispronunciation increased her mistrust of her healthcare team and their capacity to help her.
Names come with a significance whether it is traditional, religious or cultural. My name is Ema (EE-mah). My name originates from Malayalam, a dialect spoken in Kerala, a state in Southern India. It means “eyelid.” It is an uncommon name and I take pride in how unique my name is as well as the care with which it was chosen. In school, I always braced myself to be called “Emma” or something similar because I was unsure if my teachers would say my name correctly. Twenty years later, I still brace myself for the mispronunciation, even if I introduce myself first and enunciate clearly. Sometimes I give up and allow the mispronunciation to continue because I feel uncomfortable correcting them repeatedly. But I shouldn’t have to. My name is my name and should not be explored, like finding synonyms in a thesaurus. I shouldn’t have to make saying my name easier for the next person.
According to Jennifer Gonzalez, founder of Cult of Pedagogy, a platform for teachers, there are three types of name mis-pronouncers. The first group are those “who fumble over [your] name, apologize… but still fail to get the name right.” In the end, they may say, “I’m just bad with names,” or find a compromise between your name and their version. The second group are those “who assume their own pronunciation is correct or barge ahead with their own version even after being corrected.” Interacting with someone who could be classified in this group can be especially frustrating because their actions indicate they simply do not care. Finally, the third group are those “who recognize that getting a name correct will require effort and continue to fine tune their pronunciation of a name as time goes on.” Ideally, you would want to be a member of the third group. Even if you make a mistake, you continue to make the effort to get it right, no matter how many times it would take.