By Ahtiya Liles
If you have a complicated name, or even a name that is unfamiliar, I am sure you’ve heard a variation of “I suck at names” or “I’m just going to call you…” or even “Do you have a nickname or something?”
I don’t consider myself to have a complicated name. My first name has six letters. A-H-T-I-Y-A. Ahtiya. Phonetically, it’s pronounced: AH-TEE-YAH or AH-TIA. Very simple, very easy. At least to me. For my complicated/unfamiliar name companions out there, this post is for you. And for those who say a variation of the three examples I described previously, this post is also (and probably mainly) for you.
First of all, if you don’t watch Orange Is The New Black, you need to seriously re-evaluate what you’re doing. Second of all, one of the actresses on the show, Uzo Adubu, once told a great story in her interview with The Improper Bostonian when asked if she had ever considered changing her name.
When I started as an actor? No, and I’ll tell you why. I had already gone through that. My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka, which means “The road is good.” Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.
Mama Adubu hit the hammer on the nail.
See, when people use the excuse that they are not good at names after attempting to pronounce your name and failing, they are being lazy and basically dismissing your worth. Instead of humbling themselves and dealing with the fact that they are having difficulty with something unfamiliar to them, they want to brush past their discomfort and throw your name pronunciation to the side. I’m sure people who do this mean no harm and are not deliberately spitting BS from their mouths, but it’s disrespectful. They’re embarrassed because they’re messing up your name, but what no one realizes is that it’s even more embarrassing and slightly frustrating to keep pronouncing your name over and over again. Most times, it’s pointing something out that’s different about you within the first few seconds of meeting someone.
“Uhtiya” (I really hate this one with a burning passion.)
(Insert sigh here). “Ahtiya.”
“Oh. Well, I suck at names…”
No, you don’t. You suck at courtesy and patience, not names.
The best answer I’ve ever gotten from somehow having difficulty with my name is: “I’m going to work at it.” You know how good that feels, to have someone recognize that they’re having difficulty, and, instead of brushing it off, they face it head on and acknowledge that my name pronunciation is tough for them? I’m not requiring that they sit for ten minutes a day and repeat my name over and over again until they get it because that would be ridiculous. I’m a little more forgiving, however, when they mess up my name the next thirty times because at least I know their attitude is in the right place. When someone says to me that they suck at names, what they’re saying is that they’ve given up trying. It’s an attempt to make me realize that my efforts to correct them will be wasted. It’s a dismissal. A disrespectful dismissal, and it puts us on the wrong foot. How can I expect just general respect from you when you’ve disregarded the most basic thing about me: my name?
If you’re having trouble with people pronouncing your name, don’t give up. Seriously. When I was in the first grade, I had a teacher who was constantly mispronouncing my name, and everytime she did it, without fail, I would correct her. (First grade me knew what’s up.) At some point she went from calling me “Utiya” to “Aatiya,” which I took as her over-exaggerating the pronounciation. I gave up at that point. For the next 8 years (I stayed at the same school until I graduated from eighth grade), my name was pronounced incorrectly. This was because I had become complacement and disheartened. I rushed over the pronounciation of my name because I was embarrased, and, quite frankly, it’s annoying and tiresome to keep correcting someone. I had also gotten into my silly little head that correcting someone on one of the most basic facts about my identity was rude. Which, by the way, is a ridiculous notion.
When I moved on to high school, the people there were different. People could usually tell from my facial expression whether or not they had pronouned my name incorrectly, and when I tried to brush it off and tell them that it was okay, they stopped me and asked me to pronounce it again. It got to the point where teachers would stop me in the hallway and ask how to pronounce my name because they and another teacher had differing opinions on the pronouncation. That felt great, having people acknowledge the difficulty of my name but openly wanting to pronounce it correctly. I thank those people for that. I truly do.
Now, everytime someone I know from my middle school days pronounces my name incorrectly, I cringe on the inside. I don’t correct them becuase my thinking is that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. As I’m writing this, though, I realize that I’m falling back into the same wrong mentality I had when I was younger. I am going to correct them because, guess what, it’s my name and I have a right to do so. And so do you.