Ask the Conversation Doctor

Episode 1: My coworkers can’t be bothered to say my name right

Dear Doctor:

I’m a software engineer. I started working a few months ago at a start-up in San Francisco and I’m the only Black woman at the company. I’m the only Black person at the company.

I have an unusual name. Kind of like Laqueta, but maybe unique? My parents came up with it. And my co-workers can’t say it. They don’t even TRY to say it right. They pause, they squinch up their faces in confusion, they say it wrong like a question. Some of them have given up and are all, “I’m just gonna call you L.”

There are like a hundred different ways I don’t feel like I fit in here, but right now this is the one bugging me the most.

What can I do?

“L”, San Francisco

The diagnosis:

I’m sorry to tell you that you’re being injured by out-grouping syndrome. And you’re not alone.

It’s human nature to find and focus on difference. Little babies stare and stare when they encounter something unexpected or unusual. And our behavior doesn’t change that much when we become adults.

When there are noticeable differences, it’s sometimes hard for us to focus on the similarities. One way we process difference is by staring. Another is through our language. When we highlight our similarities, we’re ingrouping, showing in various subtle ways that we are members of the same category.

What you’re dealing with, though, is outgrouping, where people are showing you in subtle ways that they don’t see you as a member of their category. Their talk and actions subtly push you out.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, you’re already marked as different from most San Francisco software engineers in two ways: 1) you’re not a man, and 2) you’re African American. I suspect that for a lot of your coworkers, one or both of these differences is always hovering in the background of your interactions.

Another exciting complication is that people seem to have problems pronouncing or remembering names that aren’t common in their experience. I’ve been called Susan so many times that I pretend my name is Valerie when making reservations or ordering at the coffee shop. (And as names go, Suzanne is pretty common. And when people say it wrong, there aren’t racial undertones, so I imagine your experience is way more annoying and painful than mine.)

Back when I was teaching at UCLA, a group of my Latina students asked me if I could be the one to read names at the anthropology graduation ceremony. They told me how tired they were of having their names mangled, or having people make a show of pointing out how different they were. Especially at graduation, when their Spanish-speaking parents would be there, they wanted to be celebrated for being their authentic selves: smart, accomplished, and with Spanish-sounding names. The “American” names of other students would be pronounced correctly, so why not theirs?

African Americans have a rich cultural history of creating or using unusual names. Some of them come from African languages like Swahili, others from the Bible or Koran, and some nod to French. More African Americans have unique names than any other group in the US.

Meanwhile, mainstream American culture has a history of ridiculing and denigrating these names. Showing that they’re not seen as legitimate, that they’re ridiculous, that they’re not worth learning to say or spell right. (This great Key and Peele sketch from 2012 turns this ridicule on its head.)

So, to sum up:

1. Your co-workers are focused on difference.

2. Your co-workers have received cultural input over the years that says that names like yours aren’t legitimate and don’t deserve respect.

3. You end up being made to feel different, and like you aren’t being respected.

And this is surely painful, since if you’re like most people, you just want to do your job, get along with your co-workers and be friendly with them, and go about your business like everyone else. To be included and to be treated with respect.

The prescription:

You’ve got a few options, and hopefully one of them will feel right for you. (ETA: I’ve gotten feedback from African American professional women that none of these options may be right for you, and that you may be stuck in a no-win situation. More on that at the end.)

Before anything else, though, I have to point out that as a Black woman, if you speak up for yourself you’re in greater danger of being labeled “angry” or “aggressive” or “rude.” And of facing really negative consequences for speaking up. You probably know this already. But I want to confirm for you that it’s true.

This means that your situation, and the advice I’m going to give you, is in some ways really unfair. You’re the one being injured by your co-workers, who are being thoughtless (at best), and some of the options I’m giving you require you to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting them and generating a backlash. To disguise your emotions, when you have every right to feel them. It’s not fair that you have this additional burden when other people get to just sit and do their jobs, and then I’m going to give you options that involve extra work and energy on your part. And I’m sorry about that.

In an ideal world, there’s someone who is not you who will see that behavior, recognize its significance, take it upon themselves explain it to people, and put an end to it. But right now you’re in a less-than-ideal world, so I’m going to base my advice on that.

Option 1: Talk to people in the moment

When someone shows their discomfort with trying to say your name or calls you whatever nickname they’ve come up with to avoid saying it, you can say something right then and there.

[Rephrase so it sounds like you] “Hey, I noticed you have a hard time with my name. A lot of people do because it’s so unusual. But it’s what I like to be called. I don’t think people realize how much it can make me feel disrespected when they don’t put in the effort to learn it. Do you want to practice with me to get it right? I’ll be happy to go through it with you a few times.”

ETA: Several people in similar situations have suggested that a shorter, “Actually, it’s [real name]” each time and then moving forward is their preferred way to go.

Pros: When people can see your face and body language and hear your tone, negative feedback can feel softer than when it’s in writing.

Cons: You might have a hard time presenting a neutral and pleasant demeanor, even though it’s probably what’s needed to be effective given how these conversations generally work. This puts the burden of emotional management on you, disguising your own (perfectly justified) anger and hurt to avoid upsetting other people. Also, this puts the burden of teaching on you every time. So the overall cost to you might be just too high.

Option 2: Bring it up in an e-mail or on Slack later

Same wording, but in written form and with an added pronunciation lesson at the end.

Pros: You can just copy and paste the same text for everybody. And you don’t have to say anything in the heat of the moment, which lessens your need for constant emotional management in a face-to-face conversation.

Cons: It’s harder to interpret tone in writing, which can lead people to feel attacked or angry. (Hence emoticons and emojis.) You might have to use softer language than you’d like to, putting that burden of emotional disguise on you once more.

Option 3: Enlist an ally

If you have a sympathetic co-worker who seems to get it, maybe ask for their help and have them do the explaining for you.

Pros: Usually lets you avoid the backlash that can come when people defend themselves or lodge a complaint. Can build a closer relationship with a co-worker where you feel like you can lean on each other for help.

Cons: You might not be able to find someone you trust to be an ally. And you may bring on that backlash if you approach the wrong person. So (as with all of this), you’ll need to be really careful.

Option 4: Talk to your manager

Good managers want their employees to be happy, to feel valued, and to feel like they fit in. If your coworkers are doing things that make you feel unhappy, like you’re not valued, and like you don’t fit in, a good manager will want to know. Make an appointment and talk about it with them.

Pros: A manager can speak with authority and work to make changes. They can also arrange to bring in training so the burden isn’t all on you to a) figure out what the problems are, b) explain them to people while not making them feel attacked, and c) figure out and implement solutions. That would take the burden off of you and let someone else figure out a way to teach people about communication patterns and their significance.

Cons: You might not be able to articulate clearly to your manager what the issues are. (You’re a software engineer – you shouldn’t have to be an anthropologist too!) Your manager might not get it, or might not care. (Lots of managers aren't good managers, or haven’t had access to the kind of training that can help them in cases like this.) And you might get penalized around evaluation time, maybe judged as someone who “doesn’t get along well with others.”

ETA: Option 5: Do nothing

After feedback from Black women who have been out in the working world for a while now, it sounds like this is the only viable option sometimes. They have informed me that this is a no-win situation for you, or that they are worn out from working to educate people who don’t get it, and that you may end up still angry and hurt but now with serious professional consequences if you speak up to someone.

I'm sorry that you’re in such a hard place, and that none of these options are easy ones for you. You want to be your authentic self at work, and deserve to have that authentic self respected the same way your colleagues who belong to more common categories are.

Good luck!


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Dr. Suzanne Wertheim is a linguistic anthropologist who has been researching and teaching about language and culture for twenty years. She works with businesses to improve their communication culture.

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