What’s in a Name? Everything.

Throughout my life, people have mispronounced my name more times than I can count. For me, it never felt like a purposeful slight. Yet, over time, I realized that when people continually mispronounce someone’s name, it sends the unintended message that you are an outsider—an “other.”

My mom, for example, told me that just after immigrating to the United States, she tried to teach her physician’s staff how to pronounce her name: Anupama. One of the staff members said it would just be easier to call her “Anna,” and did so whenever they called her into the office. My mom said it felt as if they were seeing and treating someone else.

Our names are central to our unique identities, and saying them correctly is the first step in respecting, appreciating and connecting with each other. Nowhere is that more audibly visible than when students walk across the stage to receive their graduation diplomas.

Studies show that mispronouncing student names can create anxiety, embarrassment and alienation among students of diverse backgrounds, especially at graduation. Even when they don’t say anything, students care. Hearing their name (or their loved one’s name) called “trounced all other ceremony elements by wide margin,” according to a 2015 GradImages survey. Yet, it remains the outstanding challenge for ceremony planners from kindergarten to university.

A growing number of our finest institutions recognize that as our society and campuses get more diverse, a commitment to inclusion, especially at the most important event of the academic year, is crucial.

“We take great pride in the diversity of our community and wanted to make sure that each student—and maybe more critically, each parent and grandparent—heard the name they recognized as our graduates received their diplomas,” says Todd Fleming, director of college counseling and chair of the graduation committee at ‘Iolani School in Hawaii. The school used a product my team built, NameCoach, to help them do the best job possible on graduation day by allowing officiants to hear the students’ names in their own voices and giving them space to make their own pronunciation notes well in advance of the ceremony.

But the challenge goes beyond graduation ceremonies. If you’re a teacher thinking about meeting students for the first time next year (not rushing your summer), this is the kind of tool that makes your life easier and puts those you care about in a better position to learn.

Take a high school like East Leyden in Illinois, where 1,761 student names are spread across 125 teachers. You see, it’s not just remembering the names that’s difficult. In a typical year, more than 32 languages are spoken in East Leyden schools and in students’ homes—names and languages that span the globe and are attached to deep family heritages.

Jason Markey, the school’s principal, makes the importance of pronouncing a student’s name correctly vividly clear in a story he tells about one of his students:

“Avani, pronounced Uv-nee, shared with one of her teachers that no one has ever pronounced her name correctly—since preschool. This came up during a discussion in class about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on the importance of the creature never being named. Avani didn’t want to trouble anyone by correcting them; she shouldn’t have to,” says Markey.

Dale Carnegie is famous for saying that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” Part of that is the sense of familiarity and belonging that naturally and inconspicuously comes with hearing your name said correctly. But for many people, the other side of the coin is that hearing their name mispronounced leaves a slightly bitter taste—a feeling to which they should not have to grow accustomed.

We agree. And to help Share My Lesson users with upcoming ceremonies, we’re offering a special free trial of NameCoach's Commencement Service, which principals and other members of school graduation committees can check out here. To use the system, just click here and enter the code SMLTRIAL when prompted.  We will also be offering a free version of our software for Share My Lesson teachers who want to create a more inclusive environment in their own classrooms.  Please contact us at [email protected] to learn more.

To learn more about NameCoach, you can see an example of Shanbhag's personalized page with the correct pronunciation of his name, as well as this introductory video.