What’s in a name? Why getting people’s names right is part of effective communication.

A quick summary (for the time-poor)

Remembering someone’s name and pronouncing it correctly is a key part of making a positive impression. It’s also part of being a good communicator. Not bothering to remember someone’s name or continually pronouncing it incorrectly, or worse, using a name that they dislike (nicknames they didn’t choose, for example) tells people that you don’t value or respect them.

And if that’s the case, why should they value, respect, or listen to you?

In this article:

Meet John

Meet John

Years ago when I was on a trip to Australia, I met a young chap on my travels. We started talking and it turned out that he was from South Korea. He was taking a break from his engineering studies to see a bit of the country before his final exams and the start of what sounded like a serious career that wouldn’t allow any holidays! As you do, I asked him his name. He paused. Then held out his hand for me to shake, and formally introduced himself as “John”.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the name John, but it didn’t strike me as a particularly South Korean name at the time. So I asked a tentative question. “Is that your birth name or have you adopted the name for your Australian trip?”

“John” told me that his real name was Kwang-ho. He told me that every time he introduced himself using his real name during his travels down under, people’s eyes glazed over. People would try saying the name a few times then forget it. They’d ask again, and he’d remind them, but eventually, they’d forget, and when groups of students were getting ready to go out drinking, he wouldn’t be asked because, he was sure, people were embarrassed because they couldn’t remember his name. It turned out that by calling himself “John”, his fellow students – mostly white and native-English speaking – became much friendlier, involving him in their outings and generally making him feel part of the group.

We spoke long into the night about what his name meant to him, and I left him saying that his name wasn’t difficult at all to pronounce, and anyone who couldn’t be bothered to learn it or remember it was obviously not worth his time. Or if they were – for example, a potential native English-speaking boss at a great company – to use his name strategically, and remember who was willing to pay him the compliment of using his real name, and who wasn’t.

I share this story because I believe that names are important and I work hard to remember names and pronounce them correctly. It sometimes takes me a few goes, and when I am presented with unfamiliar names, I have to consciously ask for corrections, write the name down, and perhaps even use a “how do you pronounce this name” tool. I find that this results in much better connections with other people. Is this simply because remembering someone’s name makes them feel “important”, as Dale Carnegie once famously said?

Yes and no.

“Remember my name and you add to my feeling of importance.”
—Dale Carnegie

Our names are an integral part of our identity.

Why names are so important

Our names are an integral part of our identity.

Our name is often one of the first words that we recognise as babies, and we’re told stories about our names and how our parents gifted us with the names that we now have. In South Africa, a school friend once explained that her name, Puleng (“in the rain” in Sotho), was given to her because she was born in the rainy season and that every time it rained, she felt that the earth was telling her to pay attention. A colleague named Christopher told me how important his name is to him and how its meaning – Christ-bearer – influences the way that he chooses to live his life as a Christian.

When someone uses our name, we register it because, throughout our lives, we’ve been conditioned to recognise and respond to it – even if we don’t really like the name itself!

And if we’ve chosen to use another name, like a nickname or an abbreviated name, that’s just as important as our birth name because we’ve chosen to identify ourselves with that name.

When other people remember and use our names correctly, it sends a clear message: the person has paid attention to us. It makes us feel valued. It makes us feel seen. It makes us feel as though we’ve made enough of an impression to be memorable.

That in turn makes it easier for us to relax, to connect, and feel more comfortable in the relationship. We tend to have a favourable opinion of the person who has remembered our name, and that just makes communication flow.

When people forget our name, mispronounce it, or intentionally address us using names that aren’t really “ours”, the message is very different. We feel dismissed, disrespected, that we’re not important enough for someone to make the effort, and we tune out. We might have a crisis of confidence, and we’re also likely to think less of the person abusing our names, even if we’re not completely conscious of it. As for communication, well… it’s likely to always be a bit “off”.

Why do we get names wrong? Some thoughts on indifference, power, culture.

Why do we get names wrong? Some thoughts on indifference, power, culture.

Why do people knowingly misuse names, or simply not bother to remember them or learn to pronounce them?

The biggest reason is probably lack of interest: lack of interest in the person, lack of interest in doing the work to remember a name or pronounce it correctly, or lack of interest in the broader context.

For many years, I worked with a company where the owners insisted on calling me “Susan” instead of “Suzanne”. I kept hoping they’d correct themselves, and by the time that I realised that it wasn’t going to happen, I felt that it was too late to correct them myself (I say this because that was my failing). What was interesting was that every time they called me “Susan”, I experienced a split-second of irritation that coloured every interaction we had.

Another reason that I’ve come across is that people make assumptions: in Tirol, it seems as if everyone has a short name – “Much” instead of “Michael”, “Finney” instead of “Josefina, “Hartl” instead of Bernhard. So it seems natural for many people automatically assign people a nickname. The same applies to people who grow up with, and are comfortable about being addressed by many different names and with many different pronunciations. The assumptions? “That’s how we do it here, so it must be right.” Or: “It doesn’t bother me, so it won’t bother them.”

Sometimes misusing names, especially when it comes to shortening them, is a tool that people use to attempt to forge an “instant” connection. Perhaps this is because people genuinely feel a connection and want to show it. Perhaps they’ve been on an old-fashioned sales course that suggests that many people have nicknames among close friends and family, and by calling a stranger “Tim” instead of “Timothy”, they’ll be able to forge a quicker connection.

And in some cases, people misuse names because they come from a place of power. Coming from South Africa, I have met more than my fair share of women who call themselves “Precious” or “Beauty”, and men who go by “Honest” or “Kissmore”, translations of beautiful names in local languages like isiZulu, isiXhosa, and Xitsonga. This goes back to the days of colonialism, but often, people use these “Englished” names so that white people – or people unfamiliar with the sounds of their languages – don’t have to work too hard learning a new name. This prompted a hashtag campaign a few years ago called #MyNameIsNot and it’s easy to understand why it quickly gained momentum. This isn’t unique to South Africa: my South Korean friend, Kwang-ho, was kind enough to call himself “John” to be accepted by his Australian colleague, and in many Asian countries, people choose an English name when they first start learning English at school, and go by this name when they start moving in international circles.

“… a person is more interested in his or her own name than in all the other names on earth put together. Remember that name and call it easily, and you have paid a subtle and very effective compliment. But forget it or misspell it – and you have placed yourself at a sharp disadvantage. … one of the simplest, most obvious and most important ways of gaining goodwill was by remembering names and making people feel important – yet how many of us do it?”
—Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Do you recognise yourself in any of these situations? If the answer is yes and you’d like to get better at remembering and pronouncing names correctly, here are 9 simple steps to use to make things different in the future.

How to remember people’s names and pronounce them correctly

How to remember people’s names and pronounce them correctly

Focus on the other person: the main reason we forget people’s names is that we’re not paying attention or we don’t make it a priority. Make eye contact, be present, focus, and really listen when they tell you their name.

Say their name aloud:
This allows you to try it out and make sure that you’re saying it correctly. For example, “Hi Jessica, nice to meet you.” Or “Hi… um, Mojgan? Have I said that correctly? Ah, Mojgan. Thanks.” This is particularly useful if you are an auditory learner – sometimes you have to hear it or speak it to know it.

If necessary, ask them to spell it out:
Psychiatrist and memory expert Dr Gary Small suggests asking someone to spell their name, especially if it’s an unusual one. This can be helpful if you are a visual learner as it creates a mental picture of the person’s name.

Repeat their name silently:
This can be tricky if you’re having a conversation, but you might be able to multi-task and say their name to yourself a few times in your head: “Erwan, Erwan, Erwan”. This makes the name “sticky”.

Gamify the name:
Use alliteration or rhyme, like “Chef Jess is the best” or “Jolly Jacob”. Connect their name to someone else that you know with the same name. For example, “Oh, David, like my brother”, or “Donald, like the duck” (note how cleverly I’ve avoided any political comments here?)

Tell a story:
Create a story about the person using the information they share and add images to tap into your visual memory. For example, if you meet someone named “Fleur” from the Netherlands who sells houses, picture her in your mind’s eye standing in a field of tulips with a “for sale” sign in her hand. As a bonus, this helps you remember the person’s story, too, which will make the next conversation you have that much better.

End the conversation with their name:
Just before you move on to your next discussion, say something like, “It was great talking to you, Jubair.” This is another opportunity to check pronunciation if the name is unfamiliar.

Write it down:
As soon as you can, write down the person’s name and details (a business card comes in handy here), and include a few notes about your conversation. You can review these details before you meet again – we all feel special when someone remembers information about us!

If needed, use a pronunciation tool:
If you move in diverse circles, some of the names of the people you meet may be unfamiliar to you and you might easily forget the correct pronunciation. Use a tool like NameShouts to check how to pronounce the name, and add a phonetic spelling to your notes or a “rhymes with” suggestion. For example, “Suzanne” rhymes with “Who’s Anne”.

The human touch

The human touch

“The names you bother to learn and those you don’t can reveal a lot about your level of respect and compassion for people.”
Theology of Work

In the face of working from home, lockdown, and social distancing, the human touch is more important than ever before. We want to have meaningful interactions that make us feel valued and memorable. When we take time to remember and use someone’s name, we’re demonstrating that we care, that we’re present and ready to engage.

Addressing someone by name is the first step getting a conversation started and building rapport, and from there, anything is possible.

Does remembering names and getting them right make a difference to you? I’d love to know!

This post was originally posted at Whitbys, a specialist communication consultancy that helps scientists and researchers share their work and results in the right way for expert and non-expert audiences.