I can remember having anxiety about the first day of school as early as the second grade. This wasn’t anxiety about late-night bedtimes coming to an end, or about my mom delivering me at the school and driving off, or over who would sit with me at lunch.
The fluttering in my tummy and sweaty palms all had to do with my name.
On that very first day, parents and kids would cram into the gym for class assignments. The principal would welcome everyone, and teachers would come up and announce who was in their classes.
And I waited and waited for that terrible moment.
“Maa . . . Ma? Di? Ma-hoo?” my teacher would stammer out.
A short pause, followed by one last attempt: “Ma-hoo?”
After witnessing such a frustrated display, I would run up to the front waving frantically.
“That’s okay, that’s okay—just call me Mita!”
I felt the need to make sure that they were comfortable with me and with my name. I didn’t even bother to teach them how to pronounce it; I just chopped it.
Many people don’t know this, but my full name is Madhumita Mallick. I have spent much of my life trying to hide it. While my name was a source of pride, part of my identity, and represented my heritage, it was also a source of anxiety, embarrassment, and shame.
In the third grade, my teacher couldn’t pronounce Mita, never mind the full name. She thought it would be fun to call me Pita (“Like pita pockets,” she said). In college, my closest friends gave me the nickname Mahu after our calculus professor called me Mahu Mallick. He didn’t want to be corrected.
“Honestly, go by Mita Mallick,” the career counselor coached me, striking through my name in red on my résumé. “No one can pronounce this, you won’t get callbacks.” But it was my full name. I wanted to reclaim and embrace my name, which was what my expensive liberal arts education taught me.
At my first corporate job, I found myself back in those first days of school. My full name was simply too confusing for people.
“I thought your name is Mita? I can’t find you in the distribution list.” “I walked around looking for you and didn’t see Mita on any of the cubes.” “Why don’t you just go by Mita?”
Then there was my manager who thought he had the best suggestion—”Mohammed.” From that moment on, he called me by this left-field title, simply because he could.
“Mohammed, did you pull that Nielsen data the team asked for?” “Mohammed, can you join us for the 4 p.m. call?” “Mohammed, make sure the agency knows to dial in for the kickoff.”
I responded to a name that wasn’t mine for close to six months before I left. And before I did, I wish I had just said one thing, “Call me by my name.”
One of the biggest microaggressions that can take place is the repeated mispronunciation of someone’s name. Or in my case, completely changing someone’s name. When my boss created this new nickname for me, that served as a form of bullying and harassment.
Here are five ways in which we can all ensure we are honoring people’s names.
Ask people from the start how to pronounce their name
Even if it’s the second or third time you are meeting them, you can say, “It’s important for me to pronounce your name correctly, and I know I asked you last time as well. But can you spell your name and say it for me phonetically please?” This not only shows that you want to be able to pronounce someone’s name correctly, but also signals to them that you care deeply and want to build a mutually respectful relationship.
Ask others how to pronounce your colleague’s name
Sometimes, we may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to ask the person directly or too much time has passed. In these cases, don’t feel sheepish to ask another colleague or a friend how to pronounce the person’s name correctly.
Correct others when you hear someone’s name mispronounced
If someone has mispronounced a colleague or a friend’s name, please be an advocate and stand up for them. “I am not sure if you realize this. I have heard you on a few occasions mispronounce Mita’s name. The correct pronunciation is ‘mee-ta.'”
Use online tools to correctly pronounce someone’s name
One of the best innovations this year is LinkedIn’s name pronunciation feature. By using the tool, you can listen to the recording on the person’s profile to hear how they say their name. So you don’t mispronounce or try to figure out how you avoid saying their name in a conversation completely.
Don’t assign nicknames without their permission
If someone is called Jennifer, don’t call them Jen without asking. Don’t assume Matthew is Matt, especially if the individual hasn’t given you permission to refer to them by a nickname. And please don’t create a separate, unrelated nickname for them (in my case, “Mohammed”). Moreover, if you see someone creating an unwanted nickname for someone else, please intervene. Prevent the nickname from being used further and step up as an advocate. When you see something, say something.
Since the moment I had been “renamed” by my former manager, I have moved forward and gone by Mita in email, within organizational charts, and at any work function/place where names mattered. For all “the areas of opportunity” I worked on to have a successful career in corporate America, I am reminded of my name in many other areas of my life: my passport, my wedding album, and my driver’s license.
After so many years of being known as Mita, I don’t think I will ever reclaim my full name. At times, I have moments of nostalgia, but I don’t mind them since I love who Mita has become and the name she uses. While I won’t go back to Madhumita, I will do these things.
I’ll tell you I am bilingual. I’ll eat egg curry during (now virtual) lunches. I’ll tell you that I am off for Diwali. I’ll wear mehndi on my hands and Indian bangles on my wrists. I’ll tell you I’m American.
I’ll tell you if you mispronounce my name, and I’ll also tell you if you mispronounce anyone else’s name too.
And in case you are wondering my full name, well, it’s pronounced “ma-doo-me-tha.”
Mita Mallick is a diversity and inclusion leader. Right now she is the head of diversity and cross-cultural marketing at Unilever.