The Importance of Names
Hannah West
Research Lead
In this article;

In the rich tapestry of our global society, the intrinsic power of names is a crucial thread. More than mere labels, names are deeply woven into our sense of self and the communities we form part of. Names stir emotions, foster connections and promote inclusivity, making them critical pillars of our individual and collective identity. 

In the latest episode of the GoodCourse EDI Leaders series, we sat down with Jane Bryan, Professor in Law at the University of Warwick, to understand why names are so important, what happens when we avoid names or get them wrong, and how to build better connections with those around us. Check out the discussion in full below, or keep reading to learn more.

Names: Why do they matter?

Most individuals underestimate the profound importance names carry in our daily interactions and self-perception. Studies indicate that our brains are essentially wired to respond in a highly engaged manner when we hear our names called out. This cerebral response mirrors the engagement that happens when we partake in activities that are aligned with our core identities. This connection is so profound that strategies aimed at disempowering communities often begin with eradicating individuals' names. Such an act effectively de-identifies individuals, creating a sense of disconnect from their own self and their community.

While within a university or workplace setting, people may not be deliberately stripped of their names, it's important to note that many individuals within these spaces are still navigating a pervasive sense of disconnection. For instance, some workplace leaders or university staff avoid saying names that are unfamiliar to them due to the fear of getting the name wrong. Or there may also be cases where names are said incorrectly, which might not also sound like a big deal, but when it happens repeatedly, it can create a sense of alienation. Individuals whose names are persistently mispronounced or avoided may begin to feel invisible, misunderstood, or less valued within their environment.

As a means of addressing the rift caused by the above, Warwick’s Community Values Education Programme have introduced the Say My Name project, which strives to ensure that everyone is called by their preferred name and with the correct pronouns too.

Getting it Right

In July 2021, Jane Bryan and Warwick’s Community Values Education team launched a project called Say My Name to explore the significance of interactions around names with staff and students. It began as a survey with staff and students, followed by one-to-one interviews exploring whether a lack of familiarity with the pronunciation and spelling of names may create barriers to teaching, learning, and social interactions.

The research found that:

  • Almost half of the Warwick community work or study alongside someone whose name they’re unsure how to pronounce
  • 57% of students experienced routine mispronunciation of their names
  • 27% adapt their name or adopt a new name to ease interactions with others
Top tips

At one point or another, we’ve all mispronounced or avoided saying someone's name but there are actually a few tips and tricks which can help us to foster better relationships with our co-workers.

  1. Be prepared to try. If you know in advance that you’re meeting someone and aren’t sure how to pronounce their name, try Googling it first. You can also adopt good practice by embedding an audio name badge onto online profiles such as Linkedin or within your email signature. There are many ways to do this online for free too, such as NameCoach.
  1. Ask. Even if you’ve known someone for a long time, the best way to learn how to pronounce someone’s name is to ask them. Warwick’s research found that students and staff did not find it inappropriate or uncomfortable to be asked how their name is pronounced — it shows that you care about getting it right, and means you don’t have to worry about getting it wrong.
  1. Double-check. Whether it’s the spelling of someone’s name, or their pronouns, there will often be a way for you to double-check before you interact with them. Warwick’s research found that misspellings or the use of wrong pronouns had a huge impact on students and staff, especially when it could have easily been checked beforehand. For example, before using someone’s name in an email, check how they have spelt it themselves, and ensure that your spelling matches!
What can leaders do?

Leaders across all sectors face the essential task of fostering and implementing inclusive practices within their organizations. Recognizing the complexities that often arise around the pronunciation and acknowledgment of names, Jane, a recognised authority in the field, proposes two straightforward yet impactful strategies that can be embraced by industry leaders and Higher Education practitioners alike:

  1. Empower Staff and Students: By supporting those who frequently navigate uncertainty around names, leaders can integrate this awareness into their Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) training. The issue of name avoidance or mispronunciation may not be frequently discussed within the context of EDI, but it's a challenge that many individuals likely confront. Acknowledging and addressing this can create a more inclusive and understanding environment.
  1. Normalise Inclusive Practices: As leaders, it's vital to set the standard by normalizing good practices. This can include actions as simple as encouraging team members to introduce themselves at appropriate moments or incorporating inclusive elements such as pronouns in email signatures. These efforts, though small, signal an openness and consideration that can encourage others to follow suit, thereby nurturing a culture that recognizes and respects individual identities.
Training for staff and students

In a groundbreaking initiative this year, GoodCourse has joined forces with Jane and her team to craft an innovative micro-course — the first of its kind. The aim is to equip staff with a profound understanding of the role names play in our identity and interactions and the ripple effect that increased inclusivity can have on workplace relationships. This novel educational endeavour stands as a testament to our shared commitment to fostering a deeper awareness and practice of diversity and inclusion in professional settings.

It felt like this would be a really good format for the information we wanted to share around names because information about how to respect names and the negative impacts of not using people’s names is not really addressed in a lot of EDI training.

GoodCourse’s learning design experts worked closely with researchers from Warwick’s Community Values Education Programme to transform their research into an engaging and relatable TikTok-style format, helping people to understand why names matter, where we often go wrong, and how we can do better.

We felt this was something short that we could deliver with GoodCourse to people in a way that was engaging for them to get the essentials and then quickly incorporate that into their practice.

At its core, the innovative micro-course goes beyond the importance of names. It's about building bridges, enhancing mutual understanding, and, ultimately, fostering an environment where everyone feels seen, acknowledged, and valued. To find out more, get in contact today

About GoodCourse

GoodCourse is the harassment and inclusion training platform built for modern teams. By pairing TikTok-style content with expert-made learning paths, employees actually engage with training, no longer mindlessly tapping through unrelatable content half asleep.

From preventing sexual harassment to managing unconscious bias, GoodCourse equips your teams with the skills they need to create a safer, more inclusive culture.

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