What’s In A Name? Everything!


It’s happened to all of us. We’ve called somewhere, perhaps a customer service centre, or a government department, or a company we are thinking about hiring. A person answers, or we reach their voicemail, and their name is so muffled, said so quickly, that we have no idea what we just heard.

When names are not exchanged, communication is compromised. Misunderstandings, disappointment and even anger often result.

Why are our names so important to excellent and effective communication?

Exchanging names is the beginning of a relationship. Several things go sideways when we don’t hear, can’t understand, or can’t pronounce someone’s name:

  1. We can become completely distracted. We know the other person said their name so our brain creates a hamster wheel of thoughts – what did they say, was is Sasha or Sarah, should I take a guess, etc. These thoughts prevent us from listening.
  2. We hesitate to share our experiences and thoughts. Without someone’s name, we don’t feel connected and we definitely don’t give them our trust. As a consequence, we share less information.
  3. We ask fewer questions. Not being able to use someone’s name prevents us from asking questions or indicating we need more clarification on a specific topic.
  4. There’s no connection. When we don’t have someone’s name, we don’t stay in touch with them or cultivate a deeper relationship.

What can we do to make sure that we are clearly and effectively exchanging names?

  1. Pronounce your name clearly and slowly. Whether the person is in front of you, on a video call, or you are recording a message, slow down and enunciate. We say our names so often that most of us have the habit of stating them at the speed of light. This doesn’t support excellent communication.
  2. When someone gives you their name and you don’t understand … say so. Phrases such as “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name” or “Can you repeat your name for me please?” are perfectly acceptable.
  3. Our names matter. Each of us is attached to our names and we not only want other people to use them but to use them correctly. When we encounter names that are difficult for us, we often hesitate to ask for clarity. But, as stated above, this sets us up for miscommunication. Keep asking. You can say something like, “I’m sorry. That’s a name I haven’t encountered before. Can you spell that for me?”
  4. If you know your name is unusual, or difficult for many people to pronounce, include that information in your conversation. For example, while my name (Mary Jane) seems straightforward, many cultures don’t have double-barreled first names. Being called “Mary” is challenging for me because that’s my cousin’s name. So … I often introduce myself and say, “That’s actually my full first name, Mary Jane – or MJ if that is easier for you.”
  5. When you encounter an unusual name, don’t hesitate to strengthen the relationship by asking a question. For example, when introduced to an energetic woman named Pratibha, I said, “That’s not a name I’ve encountered before. Does it have a meaning?” The answer? It’s a Hindu Sanskrit Indian name, which means ‘genius’, ‘ingenuity’, ‘light’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘splendour’. First of all, I’m never going to forget this name and second … we enjoyed some laughs and smiles about my having the opportunity to work with a ‘genius’.

What do you do when you don’t understand someone’s name? And how do you introduce yourself so that you are understood? Share your tips and stories in the comment section below.


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7 thoughts on “What’s In A Name? Everything!”

    • Thanks, Janet. Introductions matter so much and yet both sides can neglect to say their name clearly. Perhaps an unintended consequence of our busy, busy world.

  1. Mary Jane I agree with your comments regarding the importance of a name. Outside of business, personally I’ve often been mistaken for my sisters and mostly my Mother. I appear to be the spitting image of my Mother (who passed away in 1998) and as I have lived most of my life in our Community, I am often called her name. It doesn’t bother me as it is flattering but I wonder If I handle the error correctly when and if I bother to correct them. Many times I just let it go as many of the people are older and can’t remember my name and it is usually a casual meeting. When I do say to them, “Aida was my Mother, my name is Frieda” and we often joke about it, but I feel like I could be embarrassing them. However, where it is essential that my name is correct, I politely as possible let them know the difference. How would you handle it?

    • Frieda … I think you are handling it perfectly! Many times when people call me “Mary” instead of “Mary Jane”, I also don’t bother to correct them. But if it’s essential that my name be correct, I do let them know in a polite way that encourages laughter. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi I’ve been a mix of sue or Susan since childhood. Mostly sue over the decades of my work life. And from several Dear co workers I often got suzie q in friendly teasing. If I’m asked which I prefer my reply is “I’m fine with either”. Sometimes the choice of what to call me is a reflection of the persons own personality, methinks. At
    one point I gave up trying to remind a lovely older lady at our outdoor pool in summer that I was susan and not Shirley. She was sweet but forgetful. But she could swim like a fish!!!! Names—fascinating.593


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