What’s in a name? You might be surprised! Most people’s names are an integral part of their identity. After life itself, a name is the first thing parents generally give their children. It may be the result of long and careful thought, or it may be chosen to honor someone they admire or to continue a family tradition. It simply may be that the parents chose a name they liked. The point is that people’s names represent who they are. Names are personal.
There are some situations in which people’s names are changed for them. Alternatively, they may choose to change them on their own. For example, people often take new or additional names as part of religious rites of passage. On a more worldly level, some people may be given nicknames, or they may select their own. Records indicate that decades ago, many immigrants’ names were changed when they were processed into the U.S. at Ellis Island. They accepted the forced new identities because the urge to seek a new life in America was stronger than the need to hold on to the name they were given in their home countries. Changing one’s name when one gets married may be traumatic for some yet a welcome opportunity for others. For instance, those whose names are tied closely to their sense of identity or for whom there is a strong family connection may be reluctant to leave those monikers behind. Yet others cannot wait to shed their names, which may be cumbersome, or reveal something that their “owners” wish to leave behind (e.g., notoriety or fame), or cause implicit assumptions (e.g., ethnic identify).
For these reasons and others, names often are personal. So when others misspell or mispronounce people’s names, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they take such errors personally. If these “mistakes” are intentional, they might be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. If unintentional, they may signal lack of attention to detail, or indifference toward the individual. Because writers’ and speakers’ intentions generally are not known, people often assume the worst and take the error as a sign of disrespect. As a result, the relationship goes downhill from there – or never gets off the ground.
Here are two questions for you: when others spell or say your name erroneously, do you correct the mistake or do you let it go? Whatever your choice, how does it work for you? If you let the error go, you may find that continued exposure to someone who continuously misspells or misstates your name is analogous to a pebble in your shoe: initially a minor annoyance you decide is not worth fixing, its continuous rubbing ends up causing a blister or other injury that affects the way you walk. Now your body is out of alignment. Isn’t it worth taking the time to remove the pebble in the first place?
In the workplace, what happens when you don’t know your employees’ or co-workers’ names? Or worse yet, what if you know them but don’t use them? People have reported feeling invisible or de-valued when others don’t have the courtesy or respect to call them by name and/or to use their names correctly. Think it doesn’t matter? I’ll never forget the words of an information technology director of a large healthcare organization who was seeking another job: “My office has been next to the CIO’s (Chief Information Officer’s) office for three years. He doesn’t even know my name.” Is it any wonder that his colleagues and employees were leaving in droves?
There’s a really simple preventive measure you can take to ensure your employees and colleagues feel respected and valued: learn and use their names correctly. The return on investment (ROI) on the time spent learning names is huge. Think back to the time when your career was just beginning. Was there a person in authority in the organization, perhaps an executive or the business owner, who knew you by name? Or going back even further, was there a time when a teacher or a professor called you by name without having to refer to the class roster? Do you remember your reaction? Perhaps the experience of someone else’s knowing and acknowledging you left you with an added sense of importance and/or a greater sense of visibility.
I encourage you to learn and use others’ names. Watch the change in those around you when you do. Make someone’s day. It’s an easy and effective way to acknowledge and validate people who otherwise might believe they are passing through life unnoticed. And you might just feel better yourself.
© 2010 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.