The day I moved to the United States to start school in the small mid-western town of West Lafayette, I had a funny interaction with my roommate’s mother. He was a 6-foot-5 Indiana boy, and his mom was helping him move in. I walked into the dorm room, a little wide-eyed and very confused, and Introduced myself. “Hi”, I said, “I’m Savinay”. “Hi”, she said and looked at me for a moment. “Do you go by Sav? Can I call you Sav?” she asked. A little shocked that that particular contraction of my name had never even occurred to me, I responded “Um, no. Just Savinay”. “Everyone’s going to call you Sav.”, she said matter-of-factly. I ignored her and defiantly went about unpacking my things. She was right.
I went to a show at The Curran Theater in San Francisco. It was a play called Eclipsed, a story about five women and their struggles in Liberia around the time of the Second Liberian Civil War. It was a heart-rending production. At the end of the show, before the credits, the director came on stage and asked the audience to repeat after her the names of women missing or killed in Liberia because of the war. “Names have power” she said. I stood there in awe, chanting the names of these women; feeling the energy with which this final act filled the theater. It was an electric experience.
Names have power. A study from the Institute for the Study of Child Development revealed that the parts of the brain that respond to hearing your name are the same parts of the brain responsible for emotion, empathy, and developing theories-of-mind. Another study found that hearing their name caused a spike in brain activity for subjects in a Persistent Vegetative State. These are amazing findings. Furthermore, I posit that names hold much beyond these forms of neurological power that can be measured with MRIs and brain scans.
Names derive much of their power and meaning from the historical and cultural knowledge they hold within them about the communities they come from. Names come from ancestors, they come from mythology. They come from an army of relatives agonizing for months over the perfect name. In some cultures, the stars get a say too.
For the individual, the name – given or chosen – carries within it their identity. Names carry the memories of a person’s entire existence, they carry within them memories of loved ones saying their name, or hopes of how they want to be remembered. The name imbues the individual with the power it possesses. Names give strength, they give place and purpose.
If we can acknowledge to any degree the power of a name, then why are we so quick to dismiss them? Setting aside the more insidious explanation – that the power of the name is why we dismiss them – and assuming best intent in people. So often I’ve heard people say about names of people or places: “I won’t even try to say your name because I’m going to butcher it.” or “I’ll never be able to say that right”. It baffles me, because what I hear is “You are not important enough for me to take 5 extra seconds to bother with who you are, so let’s talk about something that matters”.
I am compelled to ask myself, what kind of society are we creating where we refuse to afford people or cultures the basic respect of making the effort of pronouncing their names (or words) correctly.
This idea that giving up is better than being wrong has its place in a broken value systems prevalent in modern society that encourage ignorance over failure, and comfort over curiosity. Beyond the fear of failure and ease of dismissal, such behavior has failed to adapt to the demands of life in a multicultural society. You can’t claim the benefits of globalization without putting in the work to preserve the multiculturalism that is the chief export of globalization. Such self-centered, non-globalized values encourage protecting the self from minute discomfort at the cost of another’s self-respect and identity as well as at major cost to what little cultural diversity colonialism hasn’t washed away.
Take a moment.
Imagine the personal struggle, the pain of leaving everything you know to join a new community. You don’t know many of the pop culture references, you have trouble building rapport with individuals in this new community, you ‘have an accent’. Now imagine having to go through this same interaction of being denied your name over and over again. It happens a lot. Several times a day. And the whole time you’re just trying to fit in and mold yourself into a person that will be accepted. You shorten or change your name over months and years. Not because you want to, but because others seem to want you too. Because being callously denied your identity is exhausting, so you don’t even give them the chance. It takes an emotional and psychological toll that maybe you laugh off and repress. It is a constant disrespect. A loss of agency. A loss of history. Forced assimilation. It is a form of cultural oppression.
If you are reading this and thinking “I’m not an oppressor, I love and respect all people equally. I might have done this in the past, but i didn’t mean anything by it.”, then unfortunately for you cultural oppression can be unintentional and still be cultural oppression.
So, how can we be better? And how can we do this right?
The physical difficulty is not genetic, it is cultural. We are programmed from a young age to be able to hear and say certain sounds that frequent the languages we have grown up with. As a person who grew up speaking mainly Hindi and an Indianized version of English (or Hinglish as we call it), there are certain English sounds that were unfamiliar to me when I first moved to the States. Specifically the slurred ‘R’s and the rounded ‘W’s. As well as certain inflections and colloquialisms like “I know, right?!”. It was like learning to say a few new letters in the alphabet. It took some effort but it wasn’t a herculean undertaking.
I am constantly caught off guard by people’s names, especially when the name involves a certain intonation, or a clicking or guttural sound. But after a couple of tries I do usually figure out how to do it right. And I am not a linguistic genius, so here’s what you need to realize:
On a biological level, realize that we are the same species of animal. We have similar mouths. We breathe the same air the same way. On its way out of our similar lungs, we can will this air to vibrate our vocal chords. If we hold our mouth and tongue in the same shape when vibrating our vocal chords, we are going to make the same sound. All that’s missing is the will to try and a little bit of practice.
Crucially, this is about empathy and respect. You have to really listen. You have to come from a place of kindness, and from a place of being willing to learn. It is okay to be wrong, and it is okay to ask people to repeat themselves as long as you are making the effort. Say “I’m going to keep trying until I get it right because I respect you and you deserve that.”.
And if you can’t remember any of that, just remember the golden rule:
Say people’s names the way they say it.
In our ever-shrinking world, this is going to become more prevalent. As physical borders become less relevant and cultural export grows, we are going to be faced with opportunities to step outside our comfort zone and embrace the dynamic creativity of the societies and people that share this planet. Let’s make the world a safe space for dialectical diversity. Multiculturalism, much like the environment, is a limited resource and we have to cultivate it if we are going to preserve its richness and diversity for future generations.
Let’s make people feel more welcome in our communities.
Suh-vin-ay Nah-ng-uh-lee-ah – in case you were wondering.