The feedback from my last column on given names and nicknames (“Getting names right is matter of respect,” May 2) was both informative and inspiring.
One reader wrote: “Your article was excellent and necessary. There are people who think, erroneously, that it is friendly to immediately create a nickname for someone.”
Another reader, a retired diplomat at the U.S. State Department, shared: “In Saudi, names tell you a lot about who they are: Fatima bint Samir Bin Al-Gaddani means Fatima, daughter of Samir of the Al-Gaddani family/clan. In Korea, you can sometimes tell birth order as there are traditions for both males and females for first born, second born, etc. … Business cards in Asia become very important, so when it’s presented, it’s with both hands and received the same way. While Westerners would normally just pocket the card, there you study it so you absorb all the details, especially name, title, company.”
One response to the column was particularly moving. Bryanna Beamer, a graduate student at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, had just submitted a poem in her final weeks of the semester on a similar topic. Raised in Philadelphia, Beamer is a young African American woman who has traveled the globe, volunteered with the Peace Corps in Ghana and will spend this summer working in Gambia. She shared with me this poem about the value of a name and the dignity it commands. It was too poignant and timely not to share.
“Say It Right,” by Bryanna Beamer
Why do you decide how to speak my name
As though your tongue is the only one to acclaim Hear me slow and hear me well
I too can speak and I can spell
And I have to admit, I’m tired of the shame
Tired of correcting your hard A
Tired of forgiving it every day
You’re an American man
So you can’t begin to understand
How it feels to have yourself stripped away
My name is not an arbitrary label
Nor little more than a childhood fable But a combination of letters and sounds That come abound
And make my world more stable
My pronunciation is true
But incorrectly spoken by you
We agree respect is at the core of dignity But the way you mangle it so flippantly Is it because of my hue?
We come here and have to Americanize
Change our tone, our manner, our native style All to make you feel better
While trying to remember that this isn’t forever Crying as we smile
Yet when the tables are turned and we ask you To try to understand our culture too
You bring Western names meant for your tongue Erase the melodies of a song that we once sung With barely a thought of my name you just threw
My name is worth a correct speaking
A word that will accept no disagreeing
More than the literal meaning of strength
Or a family history that goes on at length
So try again, maybe you can treat me like a human being
Beamer explained: “I wrote this poem because I really really like my name, pronounced Bree-ah-nuh, but despite numerous reminders, I am frequently called Bree-anne-nuh, and I’m not the only person in this cohort who has similar experiences. I am arguing that integral human development has to begin with the bare minimum — the proper pronunciation of a name — before we can even begin to concern ourselves with the intricacies of dignity. Considering most of us want to work internationally, it’s even more important that we recognize the value of a name pronounced correctly because there will be many situations where the names are more difficult to pronounce, and that difficulty shouldn’t impact the effort.
“There are numerous studies that show one of the quickest ways to connect with another person is to address that person using their name. It makes them feel seen, heard and valued by acknowledgement of their innate existence. Our names are an integral part of our identity, and refusing to learn how to pronounce it correctly doesn’t just feel like a tonal mistake but a total lack of interest. If you can’t take a few moments to show interest in my name, why would I trust you to show interest in this project that will impact my people? How could I trust you to show interest in my opinions and beliefs?
“People will not shame you for asking how to pronounce their name because they can see the effort you are taking to value them holistically. I wrote this poem because it’s important for people to see how a small thing like a name can instill power dynamics and impact relationships for better or worse. It’s such a simple step in the direction of integral human development and dignity.”