What if you can't pronounce their name?

After a recent seminar, a participant asked me the following…

Can you tell me what to do if I don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name. For example when I am referring to their work in a presentation and when I meet someone in person?

I think it might be better to refer this to a manner’s expert, but I’ll give it a shot. Purely from a manners or respect standpoint, I think it is important to always try to learn the proper pronunciation of someone’s name.

My maiden name was “Boehm” and our family pronounced it “Bame” as if it rhymed with “fame” –as you might imagine, very few people ever got that right. I did, however, very much appreciate when someone would ask me how to pronounce it. It was even better if they practiced a few aloud rehearsals in front of me just to check their pronunciation.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask someone, “I am not sure how to pronounce your last name, I was wondering if you might help me to say it correctly” or simply “Can you tell me how to properly pronounce your name?” Most people with difficult names recognize that their name is difficult and are happy to help. Let them tell you their name, then you should practice it until they say you’ve got it right. Even if you never get it exactly right, most will appreciate your efforts.

Of course, this process can be done easily when you are standing with the person, face-to-face. So what do you do if you are making a presentation. If that person is going to be in the audience, it is important to ask. In fact, you should ask them to spell it for you phonetically, so that you are sure to get it right, when you are in the front of the room. You can do this via the telephone, via email, or via Twitter, if you want. What if you don’t get a reply?  Simply call and listen to the person’s voice message or perhaps ask his/her assistant.  Again, you are asking out of respect and it is likely the request will be welcome.

What if none of the above techniques worked and you still don’t know? During the presentation, you can simply have the person’s name in text on the bottom of the slide, and reference the work in some other way. This way, you won’t have to pronounce the name at all. Of course, you could always TRY to pronounce it, who knows you may actually get it right.

In the long run, mispronouncing a person’s name just once isn’t a big deal. However, repeatedly mispronouncing a person’s name because you didn’t get the extra step of asking and practicing, is, well, less than polite.  Addressing someone respectfully and properly is expected in all professional settings.

There are 2 comments .

Courtney —

As a new graduate student and as someone with some experience networking in academia, I have found it extremely helpful to use google to search the pronunciation of names. Nothing would be more embarrassing than having misspoke a professor’s surname when you want to work in their lab or obtain and internship. Unless it was modified upon immigrating to the US, for example, there’s usually a common pronunciation given their culture or nationality!

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