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'Say my name'

13 Dec 2021 | Dr Jane Bryan Dr Jane Bryan, a Reader in the Warwick Law School and Lead of the University of Warwick Community Values Education Programme (CVEP), highlights the importance of names in building inclusive institutions

Our names are key to our identity yet are rarely respected in the same way as other elements of our identity. University cultures normalise some international students adopting ‘English’ names to ease interactions and jokes and comments about names, for example, are all too often dismissed as harmless with no acknowledgement of the damage they can cause to an individual’s sense of identity or belonging, or that they can amount to instances of microaggression or harassment, as in the case of cricketer Azeem Rafiq’s misnaming as ‘Steve’ at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. 

In a diverse learning community, we will all encounter names with which we are unfamiliar but there is little honest dialogue about how to navigate this uncertainty and limited understanding of the impact on individuals of having a university experience with a name that is routinely mispronounced, or adapted or changed to ease interactions with others.

Research conducted by University of Warwick explored the importance of names through surveys and interviews with staff and students. Our research showed widespread desire to remember and correctly pronounce the names of others but most struggled to know how to do that in a way that was respectful. For those with names that others commonly find unfamiliar, having their names shortened or changed for them, routinely mispronounced, or avoided all together, is part of their everyday experience, often leading to a sense of ‘othering’ or invisibility. For many, this apparent lack of care for their name is taken as symptomatic of a wider lack of care for them.

Technology that can help individuals, such as audio name badges, is rarely embedded institutionally which places the emphasis on staff and students to manage using names they find unfamiliar as best they can. The lack of guidance in this area, however, leaves unaddressed the harm caused by some of our behaviours around names, and keeps in place barriers to open dialogue. 

If we are to take seriously our ambitions to be inclusive institutions, indeed inclusive communities, where staff and students are welcomed for who they are without being expected to adjust to be accepted, it seems pressing to consider how we can support individuals to respect the names of others, and to find ways to ensure anxiety around pronunciation of names does not create barriers to interactions, engagement and learning. In this way, we can create a culture where students and staff feel supported to use the name they (genuinely) prefer and, in a place of learning, we can embrace the opportunity to learn the names of others and what they mean for them as a way of celebrating difference and raising true intercultural awareness.

A lack of sensitivity to the importance of names to a person and their sense of identity can mean that acts that amount to microaggressions are often unacknowledged and unaddressed. The responsibility to accommodate others is often placed on those with ‘unfamiliar’ names. For some international students there is an expectation placed upon them that that they will adopt an ‘English’ name during their time at university, but this can cause divisions between those students who follow this practice and those that retain their ethnic name.  Many people in our research who changed their names to ease interactions, reported that they would prefer to use their given name and that they often experienced conflict within themselves and within their peers that they have forsaken or become disconnected from a part of themselves and their heritage.

One promotion of the ‘Say My Name’ project survey amongst Warwick University staff and students led to over 800 responses, which points to how important this issue is for many. We co-developed recommendations with staff and students with ‘unfamiliar’ names on how to manage uncertainty over names in a respectful way, to help foster equitable, culturally responsive interactions both within universities and beyond, that build a sense of belonging and connectivity. These guidelines are not strictures to shame those that get it wrong – there are many reasons our pronunciation of names may be imperfect – but to raise awareness of the importance of respecting and celebrating names in efforts to build inclusive, welcoming learning spaces, and to encourage us all to learn more about the person behind the name. Small steps that everyone can take that our respondents felt would make a big difference were:

  • Don’t assume you know how to pronounce someone’s name – ask – even if you have known someone a while. If in doubt, ask again.  
  • Take a moment to check spellings – errors are less forgivable and often cause practical problems if made in official documents.
  • Normalise getting names right: include as standard audio name badges and pronunciation guides, for example, in email signatures and profiles (these can be created for free at Name Coach).  NameShouts gives guidance on the common pronunciation of most names.
  • If you are in a position of influence, model being careful with the pronunciation of names both because you may be harder to correct and because others will copy you (both your good practice and your poor pronunciation).

The fuller guidance for actions our respondents recommended that can be taken at individual and institutional level to help create a culture where unfamiliar names are embraced rather than avoided and every community member feels seen and acknowledged by the use of their chosen name can be found Say My Name project.

Dr Jane Bryan is a Reader in the Warwick Law School and Lead of the University of Warwick Community Values Education Programme (CVEP).  She is the project lead of the Say My Name research working with Puja Laporte, CVEP Programme Manager, University of Warwick.  Jane is calling for papers for:  Say My Name virtual symposium (warwick.ac.uk)

Join us  at our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2022: Inclusive Institutions in Action, 16-17 March 2022.

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