Stop Asking People with Unique Names if They Have a Nickname
I remember when I was interning at a mental health counseling agency during my undergrad years, an experienced counselor and I were having a friendly conversation about my career goals in the field. Upon realizing that we had not formally introduced ourselves, he simply asked, “What’s your name?”
It’s an innocent question that shouldn’t cause anxiety for most people, right? But throughout my life, telling people my Pakistani name has led to numerous experiences with racism, microaggressions, and conflict. In grade school, teachers would struggle with my name during roll call and many of my classmates would laugh at my name or make a mockery of it. In workplace settings, some employers would blatantly refuse to call me by my name and say, “Your name is foreign, I can’t say it!” They would insist that I “come up with something shorter.”
After telling the aforementioned counselor my name, I could see him taking a moment to process what I said. Then he asked the dreaded follow-up question, “Do you have a nickname?”
I was a little taken aback because it surprised me that someone in the counseling field would ask me this question. With all of the emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism in counseling education, one would think most counselors understand why this is a microaggression. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is a common question heard by people with unique names, especially in professional settings.
In addition to being asked, “What’s your nickname?” I’ve also heard variations like, “Do you go by anything shorter?” or “What’s your American name?” Sometimes, people will give me a name themselves as if they are naming a pet: “Your name is too hard, I’m going to call you ____.”
Most of these questions and statements have come from white people, but I have also heard it from fellow Muslims and people of color. The experiences with the latter are more upsetting and disheartening because they come from places I least expect. In these contexts, I find myself wondering, “Shouldn’t they know better?”
Names are meaningful and intimately connected to our identities. As Brokey McPoverty wrote, “Naming and names are important because they are entwined in our ownership of ourselves and our bodies.” McPoverty’s article was written in 2013 in response to Ryan Seacrest refusing to say actress Quvenzhané Wallis’s name. She added, “Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort.”
Similarly, in another article titled, “How We Pronounce Students’ Names and Why It Matters,” Jennifer Gonzalez wrote, “Whether you intend to or not, what you’re communicating is this: Your name is different. Foreign. Weird. It’s not worth my time to get it right.”
We cannot ignore the racial dynamics at play here as well. McPoverty pointed out the double standard where Hollywood learns how to pronounce difficult names of white celebrities like Zach Galifianakis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, yet insists on calling Quvenzhané Wallis, a black actress, “Little Q.”
I remember when I worked at a pharmacy, one of the white pharmacists didn’t make any effort to learn how to pronounce my name. After trying once, she threw up her hands and exclaimed, “I can’t, it’s too hard!” Despite me telling her that I preferred to be called my actual name, she never did so. In fact, she didn’t call me anything. When she needed to speak to me, she never said my name or she waited until I was in her line of view. When I considered the fact that she could pronounce “hydrochlorothiazide” and “methylprednisolone,” but not my name, it became clear that it wasn’t a question about whether my name was too difficult for her. She wasn’t learning how to pronounce my name because she didn’t want to.
The overall experience was very invalidating for me and I remember feeling that if you cannot make the effort to learn how to pronounce my name, you may as well not acknowledge me as a person. When I was younger, I went by an Anglicized nickname and I struggled with a lot of internalized racism. It wasn’t until I dealt with heightened Islamophobia after 9/11 when I started to reclaim my identities as both a Muslim and Pakistani. One of the things I changed immediately was telling people to address me by my name. I remember when I heard a fellow Pakistani in college tell me, “You have a beautiful name,” it was a profound moment for me because I was so used to hearing people ridicule my name.
My name has meaning. It carries significance. It is the name my parents gave me with pride and joy on the day I was born in Lahore, Pakistan. My Kashmiri surname is also of great importance to me. Hearing people say I should shorten my name or use a nickname suggests that I need to change who I am, to forget my roots and culture, to become a different person altogether.
Rita Kohli, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, addressed the lasting impact of mispronouncing the names of students:
“Names have incredible significance to families, with so much thought, meaning and culture woven into them. When the child enters school and teachers — consciously or not — mispronounce, disregard or change the name, they are in a sense disregarding the family and culture of the students as well.”
One of the challenges is when people sometimes get defensive after you try to educate them about the significance of your name. A common defensive response is, “Well, I only asked because some people do go by a nickname.” This is true, and I firmly believe that people have the right to be called whatever they wish. However, there’s an important distinction to make: I guarantee that the people who prefer to be addressed by a nickname will tell you upfront what they wish to be called. For example, if someone introduces themselves and says, “Hi, my name is Zulqarnain, but you can call me ‘Zee,’” then it is appropriate to address them as “Zee.” However, if someone says, “Hi, my name is Zulqarnain,” then call them by that name. Full stop. Don’t ask if they prefer a nickname because they would have told you otherwise.
What if you genuinely have difficulty pronouncing their name? That’s understandable, but there’s a simple answer here: Respectfully ask them how to pronounce their name. Be honest and tell them that it may take you some time. Ask, “How do you pronounce your name,” or “Could you teach me how to pronounce your name?” It really is that simple! Too often I’ve heard people say, “I didn’t say their name because I didn’t want to mess it up,” but this excuse actually deepens the microaggression. Ask yourself if you would rather have people show common respect and courtesy by calling you by your name or not call you anything at all. Imagine if people at school or your workplace address you by saying, “Hey,” in order to get your attention instead of addressing you by your name.
I understand that my name is unique, even among Pakistanis, and I get that it will take a few tries before someone finally gets it. However, it is not difficult to learn and pronounce. I know this because amidst all of the negative experiences, I’ve also had positive ones where professors, classmates, and employers learned how to pronounce my name correctly. During my internship at another counseling agency for graduate school, I was grateful to have a supervisor who not only addressed me by my name, but also informed other counselors and staff members to stop shortening my name. Beyond professionalism, this communicated basic respect.
The next time you meet someone with a unique name, instead of asking, “Do you have a nickname?” make the effort to learn their name. Again, if they have a preference for a nickname, trust that they will tell you it. Taking the time to learn how to pronounce someone’s name demonstrates that you respect them as a person. It shows that you acknowledge them for who they are.
We don’t need to be counselors or teachers to learn that calling someone by their preferred name communicates respect and dignity.
Additional links that I recommend on this topic: