How To Not Talk To Someone About Their Name

4125yIn this country (the USA, where I’m writing from), I have what is considered an unusual name. It’s important to note that it’s unusual for this country; if you go to India there are plenty of Jayas and Saxenas all over the place, and you’ll be the one out of place with a name like Joseph Tabbert or whatever. What we consider “exotic” is extraordinarily objective, so before we get started, tattoo that into your brain. I do not assume most Americans will have heard my name before, or will know how to pronounce it. There are plenty of Western European names I cannot pronounce (and plenty of Indian names I can’t pronounce, for that matter), and nobody is expecting anyone to get everything right on the first go. What I get frustrated about, often, are follow up questions or inane, racially-coded commentary about my name that, I’m going to guess, the average Mackenzie is not subjected to. I know plenty of people with similarly “foreign” names that share my experiences, but also people with names just considered “unusual,” and thus, game for commentary. Here are a few things I think we’d all appreciate.

  1. Do not make name commentary the first thing you say to someone. Last week I wrote a humorous post about this for The Toast, and it got picked up on a MetaFilter board, where there were no shortage of people arguing about their free-speech right to talk about whatever they want, and PC culture, and how #millennials just need to lighten up, and how when they were kids they talked about their backgrounds and names all the time. NOBODY IS SAYING YOU CAN’T DO THAT. I too grew up in a diverse area and had lots of friends of different backgrounds, and I too spent many recesses talking about where my parents were from, where their parents were from, what our names meant, what other names our parents might have given us, and plenty more. You know why we talked about that? Because we were friends, and shared backgrounds and heritage are what friends talk about. What’s infuriating is when you introduce yourself to someone and the first thing they say is “Wow! What a strange name.” The explanation will probably come in time. Or it won’t, and you’ll live. (Or you can probably just Google it later.)
  2. If you see it written out, do ask how it’s pronounced. Again, nobody is expecting you to know every name in the world, and if you encounter a name you honestly don’t know how to pronounce, ask politely how, without any comment on how “it’s so long” or “you don’t see those letters together every day” or “seems foreign.” You can also try to give it your best shot, but follow up by saying “did I get that right?” That gives the name-haver (???) an opportunity to respond yes or no, rather than coldly having to interject and correct you. Similarly, if you need to know how a name is spelled, ask, and with no addition of “wow that’s easier than I thought.”
  3. Do not pre-emptively nickname someone. When my parents named me, they wanted something that reflected my heritage but that wouldn’t get nicknamed into something stupid. I love my name, but what sad reasoning! How unfortunate that we can’t trust each other to just call us what we want to be called, instead of seeing “Shivangi? I’m gonna call you Shishi.” And yes yes yes YOU may be very progressive and worldly and would never think to do this, but, people do. Again, if you’re friends for a while and a nickname naturally appears, go ahead, but if someone introduces you by their name, call them by that name.
  4. Do not inform someone where their name comes from. Go ahead and assume they know.
  5. Do not inform someone that their name is a burden to you. This comes in many forms. It could be by saying it’s complicated to pronounce, or doesn’t fit on their coffee cup. It could be in the form of a teacher that doesn’t study his new students name list, and on the first day rattles through the Amy Johnsons and Brian Smiths before pausing at yours. It could be the person balking when you introduce yourself, asking “what kind of a name is that?” or making an assumption about what your parents are like.

So, what should you do? My idea: Treat every name like it’s Sarah (or some similarly common name where you’re from). A common comment I get on my name that I’m sure lots of people think is innocuous, or even a compliment, is “wow, that’s so pretty!” And it is! I love my name and I think it’s very pretty. You know what are other pretty names? Jenna and Mary and Laura and Alexis, but they don’t get that commentary. You wouldn’t ask Sarah where her name is from, or where she is from. You wouldn’t ask her why her parents named her that. You wouldn’t tell Sarah she has such a pretty name, even though she does! Maybe start telling everyone they have pretty names and see how that feels. [Ed: I (Victoria) am told I have a pretty name allll the time. But the point still stands.] On a last note, somewhat related to this, I’d like to call for an end to the idea of “respectable” names, which is often just code for white, Western European names. You see this in lots of places, whether it’s the proof that resumes with black-sounding names get fewer callbacks than identical ones with white-sounding names, or people acting incredulous over the idea of a President Paisley. The worst, in my opinion, is saying “that name is made up.” Guess what? All names are made up! John was just made up a bit longer ago than Jaxon (maybe? I actually don’t know that.) So unless their parents have named them something like “Dick Johnson-Schlong” (please don’t do this), accept it and move on.

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