As workplaces grow more diverse, challenging names cause painful misspellings, butchered pronunciations, and consequences

Globe and Mail
August 27, 2008

Dakshana Bascaramurty

After several appointments, a receptionist at an Ottawa physiotherapy clinic thought she’d developed a good relationship with a client.

But she cringed when he walked out the door one afternoon and called out: “Okay, bye, Lisa.”

Her name is Misa (pronounced Mee-suh) Friesen-Kobayashi, and it wasn’t the first time someone had mangled it.

Her Japanese name has inspired variations such as Nissa, Mika and, the most popular, Misha.

It has coloured office interaction with awkwardness at times, when Ms. Friesen-Kobayashi has tried to find the most delicate way to correct mispronunciations, and irritation at others, when the errors have continued despite corrections.

“It’s one of those things where, if you have an unusual name, you have to get used to the fact that people are going to get it wrong some times,” she says with resignation.

As workplaces grow more ethnically diverse, the Brians and Barbaras of the world are increasingly interacting with the Harbhajans and Hui Lings -and increasingly finding themselves stumbling over painful misspellings and butchered pronunciations.

They not only look and sound bad but can cause irritation, frustration, awkwardness, embarrassment, failed communication, even workmates avoiding each other out of fear of botching a name.

Some immigrants, worried that their name will hold them back, resort to rechristening themselves with new, shortened, Anglicized monikers, which can lead to its own confusion.

Ms. Friesen-Kobayashi says that by the time a few weeks have passed and clients start to refer to her by name, it’s no longer “socially comfortable” to correct them.

“Sometimes, it’s my own fault because I’m like: ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal,’ and I’ll let it go,’ ” she says. “I don’t want to make them feel awkward.”

But once, after meekly correcting a client’s numerous mispronunciations, he asked her why she hadn’t been more assertive earlier.

“He says: ‘You should speak up. It’s how people identify you and so why are you embarrassed to correct people?’ “

It may seem pretty simple, but learning or remembering names can cause major stress in the brain, says Dr. Amir Raz, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, who uses imaging technology to understand human cognition, including the sort of associations the brain makes with words.

“[The issue is] especially charged when you’re beginning to have dominant cultures and you’re talking about immigrants and diverse populations,” he says.

A history of tripping over a co-worker’s name might bring a high level of stress to the brain, and avoiding contact with the individual might seem like the only way to cope, he says.

“How many times can I refer to someone by bastardizing their name? [It] reflects poorly on me, on the other person and creates a bad rapport,” he says.

Dr. Raz says that those with names based in different languages aren’t the only victims of mispronunciation.

There’s a reason David might repeatedly be called Don by a colleague, despite frequent corrections.

The brain, he explains, often makes associations between names and certain faces.

So if someone already associates the name Don with a certain face shape, it can be difficult to break away from that line of thinking.

In a 2007 study at Miami University, the majority of those surveyed associated the name “Bob” with a large, round face, and “Tim” with a leaner face and smaller features.

The study’s participants struggled when they tried to learn names of people whose faces did not match their pre-conceived associations.

“It’s very difficult to survive and to function efficiently and effectively without some guiding heuristics,” he says.

Valery Kupriyanov, a scientist at the National Research Council’s Institute for Biodiagnostics in Winnipeg, says he’s so used to people stumbling over his name that it’s an unexpected pleasure when someone gets it right.

Settling on a way to spell his name was crucial for Mr. Kupriyanov because of how often he publishes academic literature. But it’s been no easy feat.

His full first name is Valerian, but he decided to go by Valery, his nickname, when he arrived in Canada in 1992.

Thinking co-workers would be confused by the unusual spelling, he changed it to Valerie, but that didn’t last long.

“I realized it sounds like a woman’s name and changed back to Valerian,” he says.

“As soon as I started using my short name, it made problems. All the databases, they’re under two different names and people don’t know that … to them, they’re two different persons,” he says.

And then there’s his last name. His passport lists it in its French transliteration: Koupriianov.

He sees variations wherever he goes: Kupriyandy, Kupriyano, Kupriyamov.

Constantly teaching colleagues how to pronounce his name gets annoying. Sometimes, in exasperation, he says: “Just call me Val!”

When Denise Douglas ran a call centre in Winnipeg, she found one of her employees had more trouble staying on script than others.

When that employee, whose first name was Thor, conducted political polling, strangers on the other end of the line would chat his ear off about Germanic mythology.

“It was incredible to see how hung up people would get on it,” she says.

The solution? Ms. Douglas rechristened him “Brian” while he was on duty, which made him infinitely more productive.

Thor wasn’t the only victim of name issues at the call centre. Ms. Douglas says she was well aware that some of her employees would skip past tongue-twisters on their call lists rather than risk mispronunciation.

She says they maintained a board on their wall fondly referred to as “Your Parents Hated You,” where they added names that were particularly difficult to pronounce, as well as the occasional “Justin Case.”

While many would rejoice at dodging the bullet of a telemarketer because of their name, in the workplace, a missed call could come with dire consequences: missing an appointment, a meeting, or an important deal with a client.

Edmonton career coach Kathleen Johnston says that if changing a name could make people think doors might open to career advancement and better social relations in the office, she could understand why some might consider it.

“I think the question would be: What does your name mean to you? You need to examine your own value you hold to your name … and how important it is in the work environment,” she says.

The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research published a study in 2003 that suggested people named Emily or Greg were more likely to get a job interview than Lakisha or Jamal, even if the latter were equally qualified.

But even after getting hired, names can still create sticky situations at work.

When an envelope came into the mailroom at the Institute for Biodiagnostics one morning addressed to someone who wasn’t on the office contact list, administrative staff were ready to return it to the sender.

But Pauline Kulbaba, an administrative assistant, took a look at the envelope and guessed that it contained a credit card – too risky to put back in the mail.

She opened the envelope, called the credit card company, and was given an alternate name.

She blasted an e-mail out to staff asking if anyone recognized the name and a short while later received a reply from Alex Ko, a Taiwanese employee who had changed his name from Chun-Te.

The envelope was for his wife, who went by a different name than the one listed on the envelope.

“What we discovered when mail started coming in was that the names we had on our office contact list were totally different from what was on the [mailing] labels,” Ms. Kulbaba says.

Another time, a letter came addressed to a Yanmin Yang, a first name that Ms. Kulbaba didn’t recognize, but that she assumed could belong to one of the eight Yangs – almost all of whom had adopted English first names – at her office.

The mysterious Yanmin eventually emerged as Victor Yang, who used his English name in the office, but hadn’t told management that personal and official documents bore his given name.

Before clarifying, he said much of his mail was delayed and perhaps even lost.

To address what has become a very common issue at work, Ms. Kulbaba has created a revamped office contact list that includes employees’ official names as well as their nicknames.

Directly approaching someone with a pen and notepad after a meeting is an easy way to clear up problems with names before they start, suggests Joe Chang, general manager of the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada.

“Just ask. I don’t think it’s a big deal. Writing it down will probably help and it shows people you’re making an effort.

It opens up the channels as well to know them.”

If you’ve already tripped over someone’s name, apologize directly, he says. People are more offended when you ignore them out of fear of messing up, rather than making a mistake.

Ms. Johnston says resistance to learning the proper pronunciation and spelling of a co-worker’s name is simply disrespectful.

Shutting down lines of communication could jeopardize your ability to take on a leadership role, she says.

“I think that’s a real cop-out. I think it’s a career-limiting move. You would have to talk to the person to say I’m struggling with the pronunciation of your name. I think it’s your task as a colleague, as a co-worker, to learn how to pronounce their name,” Ms. Johnston says.

For those whose names are often mispronounced, Mr. Chang says an outgoing personality can be a useful tool.

Approaching someone at the first point of error prevents them from spreading an incorrect interpretation of your name to colleagues.

“I would do little things like having [my name] sitting on my desk with it spelled phonetically,” Ms. Johnston adds.

Sound it out

Transliterating a name based in another language to English can be the source of many mispronunciations. With a growing population of Mandarin and Punjabi speakers entering the Canadian work force, a phonetic guide to learning some common first names in both languages could prove useful. Correct spelling is followed by phonetic spelling:


(Male) Harbhajan: Har-budge-in

(Male) Pirthipal: Pur-thee-paul

(Female) Inderjit: In-druh-jeet

(Female) Dilraj: Del-raaj

(Female) Disjot: Dess-jote (rhymes with boat)


(Male) Xiao Qian: Shee-ow Chen

(Male) Guo Qiang: Goa Chung

(Male) Wei Guo: Wee Gwa

(Female) Ai Qun: Ai Chin

(Female) Hui Ling: Hwee Lean

Sources: Punjabi Arts Association of Toronto and Chinese Professionals Association of Canada

Reference: Globe and Mail