Last week a dear friend messaged me, apologizing profusely for mispronouncing my name during a podcast recording. Instantly, I felt empathy for her because I know very well the internal angst you feel in that exact moment of error.
I’ve been there before.
I laughed it off with reassurance that she wasn’t the first and she wouldn’t be the last. People mispronounce my name ALL the time.
They don’t do it to be disrespectful.
They don’t do it to be mean.
They simply don’t know the way my mom decided to pronounce it when she completed my birth certificate so many years ago.
There have been many posts on social media about the importance of learning students’ names and pronouncing them correctly. I agree wholeheartedly that calling someone by their name – and saying it they way they prefer – adds a level of value to their day and reminds them that their name is important, therefore they are important.
It matters to children. It matters to adults. No debate there.
What troubles me are the social media posts where conversations shift from aiming for excellence to attacking for error. Is there no compassion for those who struggle to “get it right?”
I know the importance in learning someone’s name.
I also know the importance of giving someone grace when they mess it up.
So allow me to share a little vulnerability: I really struggle to remember all your names. And how they are spelled. And how they are pronounced.
I am in awe of those people in my world who have instant recall for everyone they’ve ever met. They match faces with names like Memory cards, winning each game they play.
I’m still trying to figure out why my Memory card is bent.
I have a weak link for recalling names (and multiplication facts, and my assigned lines in a theatrical production, and pretty much anything else that requires memorization.) I never used to address people by name unless I had to. Yes, I knew it was the polite and respectful thing to do, but the fear of saying a name incorrectly (or even worse – saying the wrong name or no name at all) kept my conversations nameless. I avoided introductions at all costs and mentally pleaded for name tags to be provided everywhere I went.
Despite my brain block, I do know who you are.
I recognize your smile and the way your eyes light up as we speak.
I instantly recall shared memories and moments, but for whatever reason your name might remain in the shadows of the corners of my mind.
I wish I could change that about myself. I work diligently to overcome my weaknesses. And yet… they still persist.
About a month ago, I was at a district event where I had invited my dad and his girlfriend to attend. I was introducing them to an educational leader, one whom I’ve known for years. I’ve worked with her on committees and supported initiatives in her building. But in the moment of introduction, I simply couldn’t recall her name. My brain went blank.
There was an awkward pause as I prayed for God to save me and He did – the educator smiled at my family members and introduced herself as if no one even noticed my vocal paralysis.
I recently read an article about Raisa Patel whose name is constantly mispronounced and it resonated with me for several reasons. I felt her pain of a mispronounced name. I felt my embarrassment knowing I’ve caused that feeling for others. I felt a little less alone when I learned about her classmate who resorted to writing down her name phonetically to make it easier to remember.
I do that, too.
In fact, you will often find me jotting down notes in my little aqua blue notebook. It’s one of the coping strategies I’ve created for myself over the years.
What’s In a Name?
Did you know that no one in my family calls me Tamara? It’s true. That’s my birth name, but one my mother never used. (Well, unless I was in trouble. Then she used my first name AND middle name AND last name all bunched together with one breath.)
Like several of you, I grew up with a nickname. People called me Tammy, but with a catch.
Everyone spelled it differently.
My mother spelled it Tammie. My teachers spelled it Tammy. Very rarely did the two spellings align. Sometimes it annoyed my mom, but most times we just overlooked the error and didn’t get riled up.
When I moved up from elementary school to junior high, I wanted to set myself apart from the crowd, be a little different, discover my uniqueness. I decided to change the spelling of my nickname the way I wanted it spelled. I dropped the final “e” and started writing Tammi on all my papers and hoped it would catch on with others.
My mother continued to spell it Tammie and my teachers kept writing Tammy. Then I met another girl who spelled her name Tammi, so I dropped an “m” and reinvented myself as “Tami.”
In 9th grade I joined the marching band and discovered a clarinet player whose name was Tami. The only difference between our names was that she was born Tami, not Tamara, therefore she had greater claim to the name.
So I added back the “e” and became “Tamie.”
I remained Tamie to all my friends and relatives through high school and into college. Then I became engaged and realized my identity would change again as I took on my fiancé’s last name.
That’s when I decided to give the real name a go as I reinvented myself one more time.
New Life, New Name
Switching names was easier than I anticipated as I got married and moved to another state. I felt comfortable introducing myself as Tamara instead of Tamie and those whom I met were never the wiser of my 20+ years spent with a different name.
Until I moved back to my hometown twelve years later and my two worlds collided – those who knew me as Tamie and those who knew me as Tamara were now living in the same town.
Who am I anyway?
I gave up sending Christmas cards when it became too complicated to sign them. (Who is this card going to? Do they know me as Tamara or Tamie?)
The running joke in my family now is trying to guess which way my dad will spell my name on my birthday card. Each year it’s different and it always makes me laugh.
What should we do when we make a mistake with others? When we mispronounce a name or fall into the abyss of nameless darkness? When we’re not sure how to spell it, how to say it, how to recall it?
Take a breath. Apologize. Ask them to repeat it. Acknowledge that you may mess it up again, but you will keep trying to get it right.
Then stop fretting over the mistake. Give yourself some grace, move on, and for the love of all things sane, please don’t berate others who are trying their best.
We are all works in progress and grace goes a long, long way.
The next time you see me at the grocery store or at the end of a presentation, please come up and introduce yourself. It’s OK if you say my name wrong. I won’t correct you because at the end of the day, it’s all good. You won’t hurt my feelings by pronouncing my name wrong.
I would much rather you say, “Hi,” messing up my name in the process than never saying, “Hi,” at all.
And for those who are really curious about how I pronounce my real name, I’ll share with you my own mnemonic:
“It’s Tamara, like camera, but spelled with all A’s.”