If you have a ‘foreign-sounding’ name, you’d be all too familiar with people regularly mispronouncing your name or even refusing to use your name. Snéha Khilay was in a similar situation recently. Here she reflects on how far multicultural Britain has come if people still have discriminatory attitudes towards names.

What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  William Shakespeare

I recently conducted a bullying and harassment investigation for a large organisation. I interviewed a witness who, despite being told my name both by email and at the start of the meeting, asked if she could call me ‘Mary’. I must confess, given the serious nature of the interview, I was surprised and rather uncomfortable at this request.

Generally, I am in awe of the multicultural aspect of the UK.  However, the witness’ response made me question whether we have made as much progress around diversity as we like to believe. I recall that, when at school over 35 years ago, during registration there would routinely be heavy pauses as teachers tried to read my name and then state along the lines of ‘the girl with the foreign name that I can’t be bothered to pronounce’. This was also aligned with a stream of awkward corrections as teachers tried to pronounce my name, to which their main response was “Why can’t we call you ‘Sue’; it would make our life so much easier?”

© Flickr user i heart him

© Flickr user i heart him

Fast forward 35 years, into a new century and the exciting world of technological advancement allowing greater connection world-wide. Yet, in December 2012, the all party parliamentary group on race and community published a study showing that women who ‘whitened’ or ‘anglicised’ their names on job applications sent only half as many job applications before being invited for interview.

What is the trigger of discomfort, this resistance to foreign names?  Whilst we indulge in celebrities’ giving their children unusual (and some might consider them outlandish) names, for instance Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter – Apple, David Beckham’s daughter – Harper, do we resort to past patterns of experience to create, even insist on familiarity because it provides some form of safety?

Mohammed Siddique*, a well established and successful entrepreneur, made a conscious decision to anglicise his name. He explained that, given he had adapted his dress, his accent and even his diet to be accepted in Britain, it seemed only logical to adapt his name to overcome hurdles, get results and be successful. His established clients admitted that they would not have contemplated doing business with companies whose managing director had such a foreign-sounding name.

Mohammed acknowledged that he was weary of the negative terrorist-related connotations around his name, especially in airports; so much so that he is now considering changing his name by deed poll.  Does this mean that some immigrants have needed to anglicise, adapt or even ditch their foreign sounding names despite living in an evolving, multicultural Britain with its heavy focus on equality legislation?

I am aware that amongst friends and colleagues, there is a dichotomy about changing names.  Some believe that having an ethnic and/or unusual name limits their recruitment opportunities and career progression. Others believe strongly that the solution to this problem of latent subliminal bias in recruitment and promotion is to take authority and anglicise their name.  Others change their names simply to fit in, acknowledging that their foreign name is hard to pronounce and it is therefore more convenient and sociable to adapt their name or create a nickname to which their peers can warmly respond.  

It is common knowledge that Barack Obama used ‘Barry’ rather than his birth name whilst at college. One colleague acknowledged that her family changed their surname to an anglicised spelling, as they had been living in UK for some years and wanted to be fully integrated into the society which they had become part of. She added that had the changes to her name been imposed on her, she would have felt resentful.

There are a number of communities, for instance, Jewish Refugees during WW2, Poles shortly afterwards and, more recently, those coming from Iran, China, India, and Africa who, as a coping mechanism, have assigned easy to pronounce, anglicised names whilst retaining traditional ethnic names for their family and communities.

On the flip side, many feel strongly that by changing their name, they are negating their sense of self, betraying their culture and eradicating an important part of their ethnic identity, that too only in favour of social convenience. Others believe that anglicising their name would be a mockery, a sense of contempt of their identity. Their argument is that names can be broken down into short syllables and colleagues can get used to an unusual name after repeating it a few times, just like learning any other new word.  One friend said she could not bear to be insulted with the term ‘coconut’ – white on the inside and brown on the outside were she to anglicise her name and not be true to her roots and origins.

Fundamentally this is about choices.  It is apparent that – not just in the UK – but in other parts of the world, there is a degree of contempt and prejudice against ethnic minorities. The issue is whether people choose to change their name to get their foot in the door, whatever that door represents. Is there a willingness to take time to explain and understand the correct pronunciation of their name, perhaps its meaning and facilitating a productive conversation with the peers in the process?

In the situation with the witness, whether her reasons were fear, ignorance, anxiety or even lack of effort, she indicated indifference about my name and wanted to impose a name familiar to her but not right for me. The crippling aspects of indifference, negative judgement or even apathy – an ‘I can’t be bothered’ attitude leaves me wondering if British organisations, despite advancements in equality legislation, are taking one step forward and two steps back if they are in favour of only British-sounding names.

If you acknowledge my name you pay me a subtle compliment, you indicate that I have made an impression on you. Acknowledge my name and you add to my feeling important.  Adapted from Dale Carnegie’s Quote

Our job as recruiters is to send what we deem to be the right CV to our clients. If I put forward a candidate with an unusual or a foreign name, 90% of the time I will hear nothing. When there are 300 CVs to go through any foreign name is likely to be deleted without even being opened. We feel dreadful about it but essentially it is a matter of time saving.  The Guardian, 12 April 2013

My name has 14 letters. When I graduated, the university took time to ring my parents to ask how my name should be pronounced at the ceremony. It was really nice of the university, we were all (pleasantly) shocked. People are usually just too ignorant to make the effort.  Quote from Student Forum


 *Names have been changed

SnehaSnéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk.