The impact of misnaming people in research and how we can stop it

An inclusive research culture means everyone can bring their full selves to work. Farhana Chowdhury and Candy Rowe look at why misnaming matters, and what to do about it

Farhana is a 2nd year PhD student at Newcastle University


Candy is Dean for Research Culture & Strategy at Newcastle University

In order for a research environment and community to thrive, it’s important for us all to feel like we belong. We all want to bring our full selves to work and feel like we fit in. Our names are our identity and who we are.

However, as an early career researcher, Farhana has found her name to be misspelled on a regular basis, which has encouraged us to talk about and spotlight this very common issue. We should be proud of our names, and not made to feel like they cause difficulty to other people.

Misspelling or mispronouncing someone’s name might not seem like a big deal, but it can lead to people feeling like they, or their identity, don’t matter. They may feel disrespected, or like their identity is an inconvenience, or that they’re unimportant. If repeated, it can be considered a microaggression. Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, and insults that people of colour, women, people from LGBTQIA+ communities or those who are marginalised experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.

Of course, having your name misspelt or mispronounced can happen to anyone from any background, but when you identify with a marginalised group and it happens repeatedly, it can reinforce feelings of being “othered” and that you don’t belong.

To build a respectful, professional relationship, it’s important to take note of how a name is both spelled and pronounced, and do your best to get it right. Thinking about what someone has said and how to deal with it takes time and energy away from being productive and creative in research, and can lead to feelings of alienation from colleagues and organisations. We need to create a diverse and inclusive research environment – everyone needs to be respected and feel like they belong.

What can you do to reduce the impact of misnaming?

There are a number of things you can do to reduce the impact. To start with, try to prevent it from happening. Before sending an email, make sure that any names haven’t been autocorrected, which can happen without you realising. If you’re writing to someone whose name is unfamiliar to you, you can quickly double check the email signature or any previous correspondence to make sure you’ve got the spelling right.

If you’re meeting someone for the first time, and you’re not familiar with their name, ask them how to pronounce it correctly. You can say something like, “How should I pronounce your name? It’s important for me to say it correctly.”

It’s important to remember if someone points out that you made a mistake, acknowledge it and apologise, but don’t make excuses. We’re all human, and bound to make mistakes at times. But it’s important to take ownership for these and apologise. Simply writing “sorry I didn’t spell your name correctly” or “I didn’t mean to say your name wrong – I can only apologise for that” can go a long way.

It can be tempting to explain it away, for example, to blame the spell checker, say it sometimes happens to you, or that you got their name confused with someone else for a moment. However, this can make your apology seem less genuine, and risks undermining your apology by appearing to justify the error.

Be open to being challenged or corrected. It can be very nerve-wracking for the person whose name is misspelt or mispronounced to correct someone, especially if they are a junior colleague or student. Try not to be defensive if someone points out a mistake – remember, this isn’t a personal criticism of you, they’re just wanting you to pronounce their name correctly.

What else can you do to help?

Be an ally. If you witness someone’s name being misspelt or mispronounced regularly, step in and correct the person. This is particularly important if it’s a more junior colleague or student, as they may not have the confidence to call it out themselves. This not only helps the person being misnamed, but sends a message that it’s important to get peoples’ names right.

There are also ways to show your support in your email signature. For example, take part in the #MyNameIs campaign. This is where you add the phonetic spelling of your name to your email signature. Even if you have a name that is easy to pronounce, it shows allyship, and may encourage others to visibly get involved. You could also add a voice recording of your name to your email signature. Tools like NameDrop allow you to add voice recordings of your name to your email signature to help others pronounce it correctly.

You could learn more about the impact of misnaming and other microaggressions. There may be relevant training in your University – they may have developed workshops around microaggressions or being an active bystander, which are particularly helpful in this context. Alternatively, there are lots of really good websites out there that explain what misnaming is and share people’s experiences – there are plenty of opportunities to get educated!

If you are in any kind of leadership position, act as a role model and take action. This could simply be through avoiding (and owning) mistakes, but could also be through increasing awareness, encouraging honest dialogue, or introducing training.

Whether you’re an academic, researcher, professional services colleague or student, being more aware of the impact of misnaming and following some of these suggestions will make a huge difference to the people around you and the wider research culture. Correcting someone or being corrected is not that big a deal if we all agree that misnaming is something we should avoid.

We hope that our suggestions, which may feel personally or professionally challenging, can help us all go a long way in building research cultures, making them more inclusive of diverse people and ideas, and strengthening professional relationships.

4 responses to “The impact of misnaming people in research and how we can stop it

  1. Should be part of regular training in all walks of life. Really ‘hit the nail on the head!’ Thank you for this Farhana. I really think you suit this name it has a beautiful meaning.
    Thank you to Candy too.

  2. Excellent article. I am often misnamed and always correct people (in a friendly way) and I am always surprised how often people react with hostility to my correction.

  3. Once I was checking graduands were sitting in the right seat at degree ceremony. A Yoruba student said I was the first person to pronounce her name correctly in her time at the university. So important! (And I always correct anyone who calls me Debbie!!)

Leave a Reply