“Hello, Paula.” “Dear Petulant.” “Hey, Petra.” These are just a few variations on my name I’ve heard over the years. Not everyone gets my name wrong though— there are also the people who pronounce it correctly but like to make it into some sort of joke. “Petula? Isn’t that Porky Pig’s girlfriend’s name?” (No. That’s Petunia.) “Petula? Isn’t that a kneecap?” (No. That’s a patella.) Those are the well-meaning folks. The folks who purposely mispronounce my name to try to invalidate or exclude me are the most fun. My purported name in their mouths becomes something twisted and tortured and has multiple Rs and lots of “oohs.”
So I’ve developed a way to explain how to correctly pronounce my name.
I ask: How do you pronounce s-p-a-t-u-l-a? Spætʃ.ə.lə? Right. It’s not a spat-too-la. I further ask: What do you call a big, hairy spider? (This comes with miming by wiggling my fingers as if that will somehow help.) Tarantula? Yes. That’s correct. It’s not a tarantoola. Then, I add: You become petulant, not petooolant; you become flatulent, not flatoolent.
So, it’s Pɛtʃ.ə.lə, not Petooola. Petula like spatula.
I know that I’m not alone, and I’m not whining, but I do want to point out something socially significant. Our names are closely associated with our identities. When people mispronounce our names after we’ve introduced ourselves or fail to notice that the name included in an email is wrong because autocorrect took over, it makes us feel unseen and unheard.
Period. It’s a matter of respect.
Far too many people have altered their names on their resumes or used different names for school or the workplace to better “fit in.”
When we do that to ourselves, we devalue ourselves. Yeah. I know. Studies have shown that when individuals alter their names on their resumes to remove racial or ethnic clues to their identities, they have more opportunities for interviews than those who did not. Hopefully, as organizations spend tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, acceptance of resumes with individuals’ “real names” results in an inexpensive step toward actual diversity and inclusion.
I recognize that I’m coming from a perspective of luxury. I’ve already graduated with multiple degrees. I’ve worked for several different employers. I’ve been on boards for multiple volunteer organizations. I held positions responsible for hiring other individuals. I also recognize that cultural and ethnic diversity are not the only types of diversity out there, but I only get so many words for this article. Regardless, in the past few years, I sat through multiple meetings and conversations on DEI efforts, and I heard a lot of talk. But I didn’t necessarily see any true action to make those efforts into reality. I suggest one not very expensive way to work toward DEI goals involves pronouncing names correctly.
Dear employers, put your money where your mouths are and make it possible for everyone with a name that fails spellcheck to have a fair opportunity for an interview. But don’t stop there. Hire those individuals. And, when those individuals show up for the first day of an internship or a first day of work, ask them for their preferred names, and make sure you note how to pronounce those names. Through these small acts of respect, you will already make them feel seen and heard.
Okay. Climbing off the soapbox. Employers aren’t the only individuals responsible for making others feel seen and heard.
We, as friends, co-workers, acquaintances, etc., have responsibilities too. We can make others feel seen and heard by working to correctly pronounce their names. We can ask about pronunciation and make phonetic notes about that information. If you’re the friend or co-worker of someone with a consistently mispronounced name, gently correct. From first grade through twelfth grade, my classmates chimed in when a new teacher or a substitute teacher got to my name. (You could always tell. The teacher would stop in the middle of roll and stare at the paper.) If you are responsible for introducing someone, check and double-check how to pronounce someone’s name beforehand to ensure a smoother introduction.
Alright. I know. Those of us with spellcheck failure names have responsibilities too. We should find ways to help others understand how to pronounce our names. (Thus, the PetulaLikeSpatula bit.) But we shouldn’t be made to feel awkward or somehow “wrong” to want our names pronounced correctly. With the advent of drive through lane attendants asking for a “name for the order,” I have ample opportunity to experience oral spellcheck failure to the point that I wish they would stop asking for a name for my order. If it’s just going to end up at “cha” when I get to the window, or if the person at the window pronounces it “Pet-toooo-lah” after I spelled it for the poor soul who had the discomfort of asking me for the spelling, just call me ma’am.
In the meantime, let’s all just take a few minutes in our days to correctly say the names of the folks we’re around. We can do it, and as a person on the receiving end of constant name mispronunciation, you don’t know how much we appreciate it when people make an effort and especially when they get it right.