Don’t Feel Bad About Mispronouncing My Name – Just Do Better Next Time

Designed by Anna Jay.
I have never met another Sadhbh.
I know they're out there (one of my closest friends called me up delightedly when he met another Sadhbh while travelling) but it sometimes feels like, as my old friend Billie Joe Armstrong sang, I walk alone.
This obviously isn't true; as Gaelic names go, Sadhbh (pronounced Saive) is one of the less well known, but it's hardly unique. It's actually rapidly gained in popularity in Ireland since I was born. In 1993 only 19 Sadhbhs were registered and it was the 204th most popular Irish name. By 2018 it was the 52nd. Data for England and Wales is patchier – the earliest available data point is for three Sadhbhs registered in 2001, with a whopping five registered in 2018 (the Office for National Statistics doesn't record names given to only one or two babies a year).
Growing up with a less common name can be tough. In my case the difficulty lay in my constant deliberation over whether to pipe up and correct mispronunciations or to let people get it wrong and be called 'Sadeeb' all day, something which left me feeling deeply self-conscious. I stood out among my English peers but because I'm white, middle class and my name is clearly Gaelic in origin, that was normally where the struggle ended.
The biases that form around people's names have real, material impacts on their lives. Several studies have shown that having a 'non-native' name can impact an individual's job prospects. 'Easy-to-pronounce' names are judged more positively than 'difficult-to-pronounce' names. In turn, this impacts how you are seen – for example, whether people are likely to support you in a political campaign or how high you can rank in a law firm. This doesn't go unnoticed. There are plenty of examples of people citing their African or south Asian name as part of the reason they've struggled in their careers.
All of this can lead some people to make the decision to anglicise their name. Just last year the BBC spoke to a British Muslim woman of Sudanese heritage who said the success of her job applications had "more than doubled" since she started going by 'Rowan' rather than 'Rawan'. "I think it confuses people," she said. "Interviewers usually think I'm mixed-race or Irish and don't expect to see a young black girl walk through the door." Her experience emphasises how not all 'foreign' names are treated equally – while there is a base (lack of) understanding, the way names from certain heritages are treated or mistreated acts as a barometer for the prejudices that are at the forefront of society. My whiteness alters how the strangeness of my name is currently seen compared to an Arab or Chinese name.
Efemena Okogba, Refinery29's executive group director, international partnerships, goes by 'Effy' at work which, she says, is a reaction to the difference between how Afro-Caribbean and non Afro-Caribbean people approach her name. "The common reaction from non Afro-Caribbeans is a haphazard attempt at pronouncing [it]," she tells me. "As children, we are taught to read phonetically so I have never quite understood why people find it so difficult to pronounce names that even slightly differ to those that are native to their home." The reaction she gets from Afro-Caribbean people, meanwhile, is one of familiarity: "There's an immediate attempt to try and figure out exactly what village my parents are from and what dialect they speak."
Being 'othered' by your name doesn't just impact how other people see you; it impacts how you see yourself. Helen Petrie, a professor of human computer interaction and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, has interviewed over 1,000 people about their names and says that there are two common patterns: people who are influenced by their name, and people who feel it doesn't fit them and rage against it. "Interestingly, you'd assume those [would be the] people [who] would think, If my name doesn't suit me, I'll change [it]." However, she found that even these people felt strongly about their name being part of themselves – and were often against switching to something else. Your given name is so intrinsically linked to your self-identification that changing it can feel like letting a part of youself go (or, if you're trans or non-binary, leaving behind someone you never were).
That mixture of self-consciousness and pride I felt as a child shaped who I am today. According to Helen this is a common combination for people with names that are 'hard' to pronounce. Efemena says that although her Nigerian name made her uncomfortable as a child, she now realises how amazing it is to be the one person with her name in a crowd. "My identity is so distinct and part of that is from having a name that feels equally so." This pride can waver however; if you are taught to reject or be ashamed of your heritage, you will be less likely to feel comfortable correcting people who mispronounce your name.
The pressure to anglicise and assimilate feels particularly strong post-Brexit, when 'foreignness' of any kind is treated as a menace to be stamped out. But as Helen tells me: "People are in denial about how multicultural Britain has been for a very long time. Take the fact that lots of Jewish people came at the end of the 19th century, lots of Polish people came after the war." This makes it all the more frustrating for people with 'difficult' names when corrections constantly have to be made. "It's annoying," says Efemena. "I'm not your teacher. People should educate themselves and try and open their eyes and ears to the world around them and make more of an effort to learn how to pronounce names that aren't 'native' to the UK." Bola, a 27-year-old caseworker from London, agrees. "There is only so much side-stepping of a mispronunciation of your name you can do before it becomes clear that it is blatant disregard and not human error."
Being surrounded by so-called 'foreign' names is a small reminder of how global a society we are. There is no single iteration of 'Britishness' and there hasn't been for a long time. Which is why learning to pronounce and spell 'difficult' names shouldn't be seen as a burden but as a gift. I don't think there's any need to be embarrassed if you pronounce someone's name wrong the first time – personally, I'm never offended, but being British Irish almost certainly acts as a protective layer for me. But our names feel like part of who we are and if you don't care to get mine right after I've explained it once, it feels like an affront. As Uzo Aduba said in a 2014 interview: "If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka."
The more we make room for a diversity of identities, the less scary the unknown becomes. And maybe if we do it long enough, my transcription service will stop translating my name to 'cycling'.

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