Your "Hard-to-Pronounce" Name is More Important Than You Think
If you have a name that’s hard to pronounce, you’ve probably gotten used to others saying it incorrectly. Maybe you’ve even changed your name to make it easier for other people. But just because you’re used to the constant mispronunciations doesn’t mean that you’re okay with it.
After decades of having people say my name incorrectly, I came to see that it was more important than I thought, and that having life-long stress around it had impacted my happiness. So when I decided to be uncompromising about my authenticity, I reclaimed my name as a key part of living as my authentic self.
I was born in Canada to Punjabi parents who named me Ritu (watch the video to hear the correct pronunciation!) after my mother’s best friend, whom I love and adore. My name has always been special to me because of its connection to her. I also love my name because of what it means: “the four seasons.” I feel connected to the image this evokes—of transition, nature, movement, and growth.
Essentially, my name is very meaningful to me—but unfortunately, it started to become a source of torment at a very young age.
Taking My Name out into the World
The trouble began when I started kindergarten, and I remember it vividly. My parents used the Indian pronunciation of Ritu at home (RIH-thoo), but at school people struggled to say it right. Everyone ended up calling me “Ree-too,” an Anglicized pronunciation that was still mocked for being strange and different compared to the many Jennifers and Amys in our midst.
To top it off, the popularity of Star Wars was in full swing. This kicked off a decade and a half of being called variations of R2D2—a tired joke that would haunt me into my 20’s, and which became part of the racist bullying that I was experiencing. It seemed like nobody could get my name right except my parents and their friends.
Rather than embrace what I loved about my name, I started to hate it. And I felt this way for years. I accepted the situation as inevitable, thinking: It’s just a name. I can live with this.
When I was 14, I worked at the local library shelving books. One day I came across the section of baby name books. I was curious, so I checked out a few, took them home, and pored over them for hours. This was Canada in 1989 so these books were packed with Anglo/Christian names. Eventually, I landed on a brand new name for myself: Carise Bhasin. Yep. That’s right.
When I peel back the layers of the self-reflection onion to explore why I wanted to change my name from Ritu to Carise, it’s clear what this was about: I wanted to “fit in.” I didn’t want to be seen as different, and I was tired of being vilified for being Brown. I couldn’t erase my brown skin, but I could try to minimize aspects of my “brownness,” and changing my name seemed like an easy way to do it.
But I’d been overly optimistic. My many efforts to get my family to call me Carise failed—unsurprisingly, they just weren’t having it. I eventually gave up and continued to put up with “Ree-too.”
Reclaiming My Name
It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I had the revelation to reclaim my name. I was in the midst of a lot of deep self-work, overcoming the trauma of racist childhood bullying and committing to living more authentically. I realized then that the Indian pronunciation of my name was beautiful—and I’d reached a point where hearing people say “Ree-too” felt like nails on a chalkboard. I had to do something. So when I turned 30, I decided that rather than rail against the name forever, I would make sure that everyone I knew and everyone I met going forward would learn to say it correctly.
This wouldn’t be easy. I would have to retrain everyone (including my own brother and sister!) to say Ritu (RIH-thoo) instead of “Ree-too.” But I knew I had to do it, for myself.
In my personal life, I told family, friends, and every new acquaintance how I wanted my name pronounced. In my work life, where I was the director of legal talent at a corporate law firm, I enlisted the newest crop of enthusiastic summer students to help spread the word about how my name should be pronounced. Even if it took a hundred times before people could say it right, it was important to me that they did, so I kept persisting.
It was a transition that took time, but it was a necessary step to living my truth and staying true to my cultural values as a strong, proud, Brown woman. And ultimately, by asking people to say my name correctly, I was honoring myself.
Once I’d made the transition to having everyone say my name correctly, I realized that I’d been flippant in thinking that the pronunciation of my name didn’t matter. Our names are markers of our identities, and they are the first way we are recognized in the world. To have your name mocked and mispronounced again and again feels like disrespect. It’s a micro-aggression that ultimately becomes a macro-aggression.
But we can empower ourselves by taking some control over how others use our names. It might feel awkward or uncomfortable to do, especially after years of allowing others to say our names incorrectly, but if we repeatedly let this happen even when it feels bad for us, we have a hand in letting ourselves be dishonored.
Because I know how good it feels when someone makes the effort to get my name right, I proactively do the same for others. When I meet someone whose name I’m not sure how to say, I ask until I get it right. I let them know that I might keep getting it wrong but that I’ll keep trying.
Because I know now that it’s not just a name—it’s a core part of who you are, and you deserve to be honored.
Tips For Getting Others to Say Your Name Correctly
- Create a script for how you’ll correct someone the next time your name is mispronounced (according to neuroscience research, when you create a script you’re actually wiring your brain to be ready for a future situation that might be stressful—then in that stressful or unexpected moment, your brain calls on what you’ve practiced saying, and you’ll be ready for it)
- Practice this script a few dozen times and smile while you say it (smiling will help the interaction to go smoothly!)
- Enlist a few friends and colleagues to be your “soldiers”—teach them how to say your name right, and then have them help you do the work of letting others know
- Get into the practice of correcting everyone who says your name wrong—it needs to be a consistent practice, like everything else, to stick