Names Matter

August is a time of new beginnings for all members of the Penn State community, including students, employees, alumni, and local residents. Over the next few months, there will be many introductions and first impressions, in classrooms, offices, and communities across the commonwealth, as well as online at World Campus. These new beginnings provide each of us with many unique opportunities for creating a Culture of Belonging.  

One simple and sometimes overlooked step in creating a culture of belonging is putting in the time and effort to get each other’s names right. Names are an integral part of an individual’s identity. Yet, many individuals have experiences of being othered by their names being pronounced wrong. 

We can take many steps to prevent excluding folks and send strong messages in both professional and social settings, that we see the whole selves of all individuals, and value them as members of our classrooms, teams, units, colleges, campuses, and communities.   

These include:  

  • Double checking the spelling of names, in emails, comments and any other correspondence.   
  • Paying attention to name pronouncers in email signatures, LinkedIn profiles and other venues.  
  • Looking up pronunciations on the internet and other sources  
  • Asking ahead of time for help from others who may be familiar with a name that is unfamiliar to us.  
  • During introductions, listening to all names with respect and curiosity.   
  • Admitting to needing help in pronouncing or spelling any name and asking for help with respect. You have a beautiful name; can you help me pronounce it correctly is preferable to I do not know where to start or This is such a hard/long/not a normal name.   
  • Sharing origin stories of our name if appropriate, and offering opportunities for others to share theirs, to make everyone feel seen and create community.   

Calling someone by a name of your choice, or avoiding using their name entirely, are both unacceptable. Sometimes an individual who sees others struggling with their name may themselves offer a modified shortened name, usually an anglicized version, to make it easy for others. Respecting their choice is important. But it is also important to realize that multiple negative reactions from others in the past may have resulted in their adopting a new name, at a great loss of cultural or personal identity.   

These uncomfortable, othering experiences can be avoided if we care to try and learn the right way to spell or say another’s name. While learning to say another’s name correctly is only a simple first step, not doing so sends messages of exclusion. Putting in the effort to say names right is not only an act of caring, but also an essential first step to creating a culture of belonging in our workplaces.  

What we can do: