Ever feel intimidated when you meet someone with an unfamiliar name? Your first thought is likely I’m gonna mess that up. I tend to follow that thought by giving thanks that I get to meet people named Agnieszka, Björn, Siobhán, Abdulaziz and Erica … wait, Erica?
People often share name stories with me, and Erica told me she doesn’t like it when people call her Air-e-kah, because that’s not her name. When her mom named her, she only spoke Spanish, so Erica didn’t grow up being an Air-e-kah. Sometimes people act annoyed, she added, and suggest that she just use the English pronunciation — since the actual one was supposedly too hard to say. She would ask them, “Can you say Eddie?” They would respond, “Sure, Eddie.” Then she would tell them to add -ka to that — “Eddie-ka” — and then they’d say her name correctly.
My name, like Erica’s, has more than one pronunciation. In English, people pronounce it UR-ma. But the pronunciation of my name in Spanish and many other languages — including Russian, French and Danish — uses the soft “e” sound like that used in “Italia.”
When you see my name on a name tag or written somewhere, I get that you’ll likely use the English pronunciation. You can’t know how I say my name until I tell you. “It’s pronounced Ear-ma” (well, close enough). Folks mostly do their best to get it right, but on occasion I’ve been told, “This is America, say your name in English.”
That our names are mispronounced in social settings can be annoying, but our names are sometimes weaponized to place us at a disadvantage. We live in a society where familiar stereotypes about different groups are perpetuated, and this influences us even when we think we are free of bias and treat and see everyone as equals. It’s called implicit bias — and we all have it.
Those of you with names whose pronunciation is familiar probably do not give a second thought to whether your name could be an obstacle to your success. You’ve probably read or heard about name discrimination, and studies have documented its existence time and time again. Lakisha and Jamal are less likely to be hired than Emily and Greg. And when Jose started using Joe on his resume, his applications suddenly became more appealing to potential employers.
Some years ago, a young woman shared this story. Her spouse, Felipe, who received an MBA from a prestigious university, showed up to his first day at work at an investment firm. He’d worked there the previous summer and was thrilled to get a job offer. The partner who welcomed him showed him to his office and motioned to the box of business cards on top of the desk. Felipe was then informed that the firm thought its clients would be more comfortable with Felipe’s middle name, so it took the liberty of ordering his cards using his middle name. True, his middle name is Jason, and his resume and all forms he filled out said Felipe Jason Garcia. But he’s always gone by Felipe.
I’ve often wondered how Felipe/Jason adjusted to working there.
People tell me very personal name stories and send me scholarly articles. Recently, a law-professor friend sent me an article titled “The ‘Difficult’ Name Penalty,” which reported that having hard-to-pronounce names — from the perspective of English speakers — results in fewer job-placement opportunities for those with a Ph.D in economics. It’s a good use of their training that economists are quantifying the cost of discrimination.
The problem of name discrimination isn’t unique to the United States. The same results have been reported in France, England and other countries as well. Those with ancestry in countries that were once colonies can be disadvantaged when it comes to employment opportunities.
As a civil rights lawyer for three decades, I had many opportunities to learn about the ways discrimination impacts us as individuals and how it shapes our society. My transition from lawyer to playwright has come in stages.
After practicing for five years, I took a break from law to write about how communities experienced exclusion or attacks by those who fear demographic and cultural changes. While writing was very gratifying, after several years, I returned back to lawyering.
A decade ago, I decided to take yet another break to pursue journalism and creative writing. I took a 10-week “Telling Your Stories” class at The Marsh Theater in Downtown Berkeley and fell in love with the art form. I started performing 15-minute pieces, which were often about names and the status associated with our names and racial and ethnic backgrounds.
This led to me writing my one-woman show, “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?” Through it, I share observations from the frontlines placed in historical context, and sprinkled with some humor, I leave audience members pondering how we show respect to one another. I now use theater to address social justice themes.
The smallest and kindest action you can take to create an environment of inclusion is by asking a simple question when you meet someone with an unfamiliar name: “Can you help me get that right?”