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What to Do When Faced with a Difficult Name

Do you break into a cold sweat every time you are confronted with a name you have no idea how to pronounce?

By
Lisa B. Marshall,
July 21, 2008

Page 1 of 2

Lis: Hey gang, it's Lisa B. Marshall with another quick and dirty tip for better workplace communication from your Public Speaker and today we’re doing a joint episode with Adam Lowe, the Modern Manners Guy. Hi Adam, thanks for joining us on the show.


Ada: Hi, Lisa, thanks for having me on the show.

Lis: You know Adam, I remember when I was in college, the first day of class would start with role call—the professor reading out last names, Robbins (here), Smith (here), Fogarty (here), and usually just before my name was called there was a long pause followed by some close scrutiny of the student roster and then...Lisa? I used to wait and watch for it. Why? Because my last name back then was difficult to pronounce!

So, today's program stems from that experience and more recently from a question I was asked after delivering a networking seminar. One of the participants asked me:

Can you tell me what to do if I don't know how to pronounce someone's name. For example, when I am meeting someone in person or referring to their work in a presentation?

Looking back I now realize my professors thought it was more polite not to mangle my last name, especially when they had the option of calling me by my first name. So they just called me “Lisa” and for them, the problem was solved. I suppose it's a good thing my parents didn't decide to name me Kal-ela or Sputnikuuna.

Ada: Yes, that is lucky. Of course as you know, it’s critical that you always make a respectful effort to properly pronounce someone’s name and never make fun of a name in a public setting (or in private, unless you know the person very well and know it’s not a point of sensitivity). And while your professors took a shortcut by using your first name, that’s not always appropriate in a formal setting, like a presentation in front of an audience.

How to Politely Ask for the Correct Pronunciation of a Name

Lis: My maiden name was spelled "B-o-e-h-m" and our family pronounced it "Bame" --rhyming with "fame" --as you might imagine, very few people could say it properly based on the spelling only.

If you need to introduce someone and you’re not sure how to pronounce her or his name, you should ask. It’s the most direct and respectful approach, and people will appreciate your efforts to make sure you get the pronunciation right.

I would answer to Bohm, Beam, Boem, really just about anything that started with the letter “b,” and I've got to say that, boy, did I appreciate when someone would ask me how to pronounce it. It was even better when they rehearsed it once or twice just to make sure they got it right.

Ada: So you’ve hit on the best possible approach: if you need to introduce someone in a professional setting and you’re not sure how to pronounce her or his name, you should ask. It’s the most direct and respectful approach, and people will appreciate your efforts to make sure you get the pronunciation right.

Lis: That’s exactly what I do, I say something like, "I am not sure how to pronounce your last name, I was wondering if you might help me to say it correctly," or more directly "Can you tell me how to properly pronounce your name?"

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