The Sweetest Sound: Getting Names Right

How do you respond when you hear a name that’s not familiar?  Maybe it’s a very long or unusual name.  Maybe it’s foreign sounding to your ear.

In any case, while it may seem strange to you, it’s pretty important to the person who carries the name.  I know some Americans who feel embarrassed about saying unusual, foreign-sounding names.

Sometimes they just smile and nod, but they never make the effort to say the name out loud.  Worse yet, they may say, “How about if I just call you Bud?”

News flash: These are not good approaches.  Just as your name is important to you, so is each unique name important to its owner.  Let me give you some tips.

If you don’t understand the person’s name, just smile and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that?  Could you say it again?”

If you don’t understand a second time, it’s not a big deal.  Chances are, the person knows he or she has a difficult name.  The person will feel respected, however, if you make the effort to say their name.

Maybe you can ask them to repeat slowly.  You can say, “Sorry, I’m not good at names, but I’d really like to get your name right.  Can you help me learn it?”

A great example is our guest Reouhidi Ndjerareou.  The average American—me too, actually—gets a little freaked out when we see too many vowels or too many consonants stacked up in a way that looks unfamiliar (not the English way, basically).

One thing that helps me is to make up mnemonics for words that are hard to remember.  In our friend’s case, I think of rowing a boat across a small pond and seaweed gets all over your oars.  In other words, I think of “row” and “weedy.”  That may not be the perfect way to say his name, but it’s close enough to help me remember it and close enough for Reouhidi to feel I respected his name.

If you go to our What’s Up? webpage at FeelLikeYouBelong.com, we offer more tips for working with unfamiliar names.  In the meantime, don’t be shy, learn a new name, and make someone’s day!

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.