The Current

How Canadians can be more inclusive of diverse names

What's in a name? Everything. Your identity. Your sense of self. It sets you apart. It helps you belong. In a society where names come in many languages, from different origins of race, culture, and geography, it's possible to be wounded over a name.
What's in a name? A lot, actually. Name expert Karen Pennesi says it's important to respect names and has created a framework to help Canadians be more inclusive when it comes to names. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

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Anyone who lives with a so-called "difficult name" knows how it can make life, a little more difficult.

In a society as diverse as our own is today, it's just a matter of respect to become familiar with so-called unfamiliar names, especially at a time when racial divisions seem to be surfacing in the wake of the U.S. election. Because mispronouncing names is one of the everyday ways that people from diverse backgrounds may feel excluded.

Actor and writer Shekhar Paleja (Pron: SHAY-kher Pel-LAY-jah) moved to Canada when he was eight years old and says he dealt with a healthy amount of racism in Alberta in the 80s.

"As much as I fought back being shamed like that just messes you up in sort of insidious ways, you know self-doubt and self-hatred sort of take root in subconscious ways," Paleja tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"So over the years in in order to make it easier for others to draw less attention to the fact that I was different, I began to whitewash my name to 'Shaker' so that Anglo speakers could just pronounce my name easily."

Paleja says he just recently went back to spelling his name properly.

Treat a name with respect

Freelance journalist Davide Mastracci (Pron: DAH-vee-Deh [soft deh, NOT day] MAH- straah- chi) says at least 95 per cent of the time people get his name wrong — including his friends.

"If somebody can say my name properly it's like a really nice moment. But most of the times they can't, so I've just got used to it," says Mastracci. 

"It's only frustrating if somebody doesn't really try, or if they act as if it's like an inconvenience to them to say my name properly."

Mastracci believes the way you treat a name, especially since it's one of the first things you learn about a person, is indicative of how you treat them in general.

"If you meet someone and their name is a bit difficult but you treat it with respect that's a good base for the rest of the relationship to go forward. If you don't, that kind of sours everything."

Karen Pennesi (Pron: Pen-EASY) an associate professor of anthropology at Western University, says names are powerful symbols of identities and it's important to honour this.

"When our names are mistreated, mispronounced or misspelled, or people get it wrong somehow, we feel personally insulted or disrespected, " Pennesi tells Tremonti.

Pennesi says mispronouncing a name has an emotional reaction, it's not like a word.

"People who are already feeling excluded, or marginalized … these kind of name related incidents take on a bigger significance because it's just another reminder of this difference in you know social status that you don't belong."

How to approach an unfamiliar name

Pennesi has been working on a universal approach to deal with unfamiliar names in a respectful ways and suggests not to comment or question when learning a new name.

"So if somebody tells you a name and it's unfamiliar to you, don't don't make a big deal about it by making comments … like 'I'm really bad with names' or 'your name is really hard, your name is difficult it's too long'."

"Don't don't ask where they're from assuming that they must be from somewhere else if they have a different kind of name."

She suggests to check the pronunciation the same way you would if you were verifying a phone number, "in a sort of business-like-matter-of-fact-fashion, and not making a big deal about it."

Pennesi tells Tremonti, it's best not to insist on getting the name right after you have tried a couple of times, just move on and try to find another way next time.

"Make that effort to try because everyone wants their name to be treated respectfully. We can all agree with that, right?"

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley and Shannon Higgins.