Pronouncing Participants’ Names – Episode 21

In this episode, Beth Cougler Blom talks with Mary Houle and Sarra Ismail about the importance of pronouncing people’s names correctly, how to learn how to do it respectfully, and why it’s related to inclusive facilitation practices.

Beth, Sarra and Mary also talk about:

  • How to respectfully ask someone to pronounce their name
  • Strategies to follow when learning how to pronounce a person’s name
  • Our responsibilities as “listeners” when our conversation partners have accents or names that are unfamiliar to us
  • The relationship between pronouncing people’s names and fostering group belonging and inclusion
  • Name pronunciation situations that apply specifically to work facilitating with groups

Engage with Mary Houle and Sarra Ismail

Other Links from the Episode

Connect with the Facilitating on Purpose Podcast

Connect with Beth Cougler Blom

Podcast cover art by Emily Johnston of Artio Design Co.
Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth
Hello, thank you so much for joining me today for Episode 21. This is all about pronouncing participants’ names when we’re in facilitated situations such as workshops or courses, or anywhere where you bring groups together. I have been noticing this issue more in the last few years because so many of us have been spending more time in Zoom and Zoom-like environments where we see people’s names written on their profile when they come into the virtual space. We didn’t have that when we were mostly in person with groups, did we? We had a different way of introducing ourselves to each other and we often heard a participant say their name before we saw the name spelled. Now that we’re in virtual spaces so much we often have the opposite situation where we see their name first and then we’re wondering how to pronounce it. I’ve been thinking about things around this. For example, how do I ask a person respectfully how to say their name? Do I do that in front of the group when they come into the Zoom room? I worry about things like well, what if I’ve asked them how to say their name and then I remember it the first name but then I forget it later on in the session? I have all these questions and so many more about how to pronounce people’s names respectfully and what it looks like to work with people who have names that I’m unfamiliar with.

If you have this as well, if you’ve been wondering things like this, I think you’re going to enjoy the conversation that I have with my two guests today. Joining me is Mary Houle and Sarra Ismail. Mary and Sarra work together and they also work separately. They have different backgrounds and expertise areas. Mary is a speech pathologist turned executive speech coach in Ottawa. And she works with people around elevating their voices but it also turns out to be big work around the stories that people that tell themselves. Sarra is a training professional with many years of experience working in multicultural workspaces. She grew up in three different countries. She’s a Black, Muslim, neurodivergent, immigrant woman and in her work she supports people on how to hack communication obstacles that immigrants can face in the workplace. Mary and Sarra are actually quite a dynamic duo because they bring this combination of science and lived experience to the topic of pronouncing people’s names. And actually they had so many tips for me and for all of us that this episode turned out to be a little bit longer than our normal episodes. So I think you’re going to really enjoy learning from and with them. Here’s Mary Houle and Sarra Ismail on pronouncing people’s names. Enjoy the show.

Beth Cougler Blom
Hello, thank you so much for being here, you two. I’m so glad you agreed to come on the podcast today.

Mary Houle
Woo hoo! We’re glad to be here. I am. Sarra?

Sarra Ismail
I’m very excited. [laughs] Thank you for having us.

Beth
Because we’re going to be talking about our names and pronouncing people’s names in a facilitation or training situation, I’m wondering if you would both share a little bit about your name and maybe one way it’s important to you.

Sarra
Mary, you go first.

Mary
Oh, sure. My name is so simple, and almost nobody gets it wrong. So the work that I do does not come from lived experience, except that through my professional life, I’ve realized that this is important and there are ways to get names right. So personally, though, my name is Mary Jane. And when I was seven, I said no more Mary Jane. I’m just Mary. And I have regret. I think Mary Jane is unique in ways that I miss. And some of the members of my family still call me Mary Jane and it fills my heart, maybe in ways that people who are asked like, whose names get pronounced like their mom’s pronounce them, maybe that’s what my lived experience is. Like I know what that feels like to be almost seen in a way by somebody showing you they know how your name is pronounced or who you really are.

Beth
Thank you. Now I’m gonna jump in and turn the conversation over to you, Sarra. [Sarra laughs]. And I think you’re gonna help me how did I do on your name?

Sarra
Excellent. Actually.

Beth
Yeah? Okay, good.

Sarra
I’m very impressed. Did someone give you a hack? [laughs]

Beth
Well, Mary did. I must admit.

Sarra
Ahh.

Beth
So maybe I’ll just break in and say the reason that I found out about you both is because my friend and connection, Taruna Goel, posted about you on LinkedIn. And I had interviewed Taruna on the podcast back in the fall. And, you know, check out her podcast, it’s about learning how to learn. So good. And then she shared the workshop that you two do about pronouncing names. So I saw it, and I actually just rewatched the YouTube video about that. And I encourage everybody to go listen to it and sign up for your workshop, too. But she talked about your name. So tell me a little bit more about your name, Sarra, and also, maybe one way it’s important to you.

Sarra
My name, always kind of people see it…when they see it, they’re like, Oh, how do I pronounce it? Because I’ve spelled it S-A-R-R-A. And so the double “r” kind of puts people off. But it also, I find it creates interesting conversation. Latinos are always like, Oh, I can do that. I can roll the R. So they love it. But I also I don’t mind being called Sarah. I always say my mother calls me Sarra. But I recognize that it is a very uniquely Sudanese way.

So I’m from Sudan. That is my country of origin. It’s a uniquely Sudanese way of saying Sarra. So even other Arabic speaking countries, because I speak Arabic, that’s my mother tongue in Sudan. And a lot of people in Sudan, Arabic is their mother tongue. Not everyone. But for a lot of people. Even within other Arabic speaking countries my name is pronounced differently, because I have a very uniquely Sudanese way of pronouncing my name.

So other Arabic countries might say Sarra, for example, but my mother’s is Sarra. And it’s hard. I know that if you’re, you know, if you’re not used to that particular R, which is, as I said, uniquely Sudanese, it’s hard. Mary always says that R is the hardest sound, you know, to transfer between different accents and languages. So if you get the “A” right, instead of Sara, you say Sarra, that’s like 85% of my name correct. And then you can ignore the “R”. It’s okay. [laughs] So Sarra is great. Thank you for pronouncing it correctly. And thank you for asking.

My name is…it’s actually a pretty generic name. Like where I grew up in my social circles in Sudan, I would always have multiple Sarras in my class, or I have like a first cousin and an aunt and like three [laughs] you know second cousins who all have the same name.
So it’s a very, very common name for sure, Sarra. I was named after my maternal aunt, my, the eldest, kind of the matriarch of the family. Her name is Sarra. She was named after our great grandmother, my great grandmother, who was called Alsurra, which is a derivative of Sarra which in Arabic means joy. So AlsurraSo Sarra means someone that brings joy.

Mary
Of course it does!

Sarra
[Laughs]

Beth
I think I’m getting that from you already. [They laugh] So apropos.

Sarra
I try. I try. But yeah, and I like my name because you know, so I like connecting with Alsurra who I never met. She’s my mother’s grandmother, so I didn’t ever meet her. I’ve heard a few stories about her, but we actually don’t know that much about her history. So I don’t know, I feel like I like to summon her name when I think of her. And it’s a pretty international name. It’s made me able to connect with people in different cultures and different countries because I think nearly every culture in the world, you know, has Sarra, or Sarah as a name.

Mary
And that makes it convenient for you honestly.

Sarra
Absolutely.

Mary
As an immigrant to Canada it wasn’t a big ordeal for you to have to introduce yourself, especially since you have flexibility around how you invite people to pronounce your name.

Sarra
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t mind, I don’t mind being called Sarah. Sometimes I find it like, I only go through the effort of correcting people – and I don’t even call it correcting, just like maybe guiding them to pronounce it how I would or my mother would – but I feel like that adds not a layer of complication. What’s the word I want to say? Like just adds a layer of interaction I don’t always need. It’s only if it’s worth it. I’m also a little bit protective of my name. And I feel like, you know, they might still butcher the name. So actually, I sometimes just prefer being Sarah. Because like, why bother? [laughs] So it depends on the setting, honestly. But if someone asks me, I always explain how I pronounce it and try and help them get to Sarra instead of Sarah. But a lot of times I just say Hi, I’m Sarah. Doesn’t matter to me. But that’s my unique experience of it. So yeah, it is a very, what’s the word, palatable name. It’s easily transferable across different cultures and languages.

Mary
You’re always very explicit about privilege that you’ve had in your life, and lost, in a move to Canada, I would say. Is that fair?

Sarra
Absolutely.

Mary
On this name piece, I think there’s a privilege in you have a name, if you welcome me to pronounce it in the way that I grew up pronouncing this name I’ll just say it like Sarah. That’s just gonna flow for me. I don’t have this moment before where I’m like, [makes a sharp intake of breath], am I gonna pronounce it right? Am I gonna get it right? So there’s no hesitation for me. If you invite me to pronounce your name as Sarah, then I’m going to call on you. If I’m in a group, and I want your input. But if I have a moment of hesitation, you know what? I might not call on you. I might like, I want to ask her, but I’m not sure how to pronounce her name. So I’m just gonna ask Beth instead. Beth, what do you think? [Sarra laughs.] The other white person on the panel.

Beth
I think you’re right on the money. I had that thought as well that I bet as facilitators we call on people less when we have that fear of whether we’re going to get it right or not. Their name, or I don’t know, just understanding their accent or whatever it is. So you’re saying absolutely that does happen. We do call on people less and draw them in less?

Mary
That is why we created this workshop because we want to give people the tools, there are actually concrete practical tools, to be able to feel confident that they’re pronouncing an unfamiliar name, right. It’s great. [laughs]

Beth
I want to take this workshop, and I know we’ll talk about that more in the future. But uh it’s so necessary. Okay, so you might not know how to pronounce my name. So how would you respectfully ask me, I think there may be ways where you wouldn’t want to ask it that way. Or you would. How would you draw me out?

Sarra
Your first name sounds easy to me, it’s Beth. Yeah, I was struggling with your, your second name, I guess. And I would just ask you, how should I pronounce your name? That’s how I usually do it. How should I pronounce your name?

Beth
I actually have two surnames separated by a space. So I guess a side issue is that sometimes people think only one of them is my last name, which I suppose other people from other cultures might also have. Which name is the first name or the surname or the family name? So both of my names, Cougler Blom, are my last name. And my original maiden name, I guess we would say in Canada is Cougler. That was the name my parents had. And then Blom is my husband’s name. And I took that on when I got married. And that maybe was a hard decision because it added an extra name that is unfamiliar to people. And also I don’t use a hyphen so people love to hyphen and stick it in. I feel very particular. I don’t like the hyphen. But actually Beth is a nickname of my middle name, which is Elizabeth. So my full name is Karen Elizabeth Cougler Blom. You know, a first name, a middle name and last names. So I have name issues as well.

Sarra
Yeah I would have pronounced it Coo-lee-ay. [laughs] Yeah, I was gonna go like French. [laughs] I’m I’m glad you clarified that I would have gotten French maybe because I live in Ottawa.

Mary
I love that though. Because I think that sometimes we worry that names are more complicated than they are. This happens a lot of time to people I know and clients I’ve had who have names that look complicated, but then actually they’re pronounced exactly as they’re spelled. Like a lot of languages outside of English are almost purely phonetic. Like they’re written how they’re pronounced.

But sometimes there are a lot of syllables. And so then people will be like, Oh, it can’t be easy. Like, just look at it one syllable at a time. Like, oh, yeah, that’s actually really easy. I have all of those sounds in English, right? All of those consonants and vowels will be in English. But then they feel like there’s too many, there’s going to be a complication. And often there’s not. If it comes from a language that’s phonetic, then it’s like, just take your time, pay attention. Look carefully. Listen. It’s that focus, not just quickly, just go over it and hope for the best. Take a bit of time, lean into it, see, oh, it’s that.

And like Sarah said, Ask. And I love how you said that. How should I pronounce your name? I was listening to see how you worded it. I think that’s perfect. How should I pronounce your name? Because you’re not saying how do you pronounce it? Because that’s complicated. How do you pronounce your name? Well, that’s, that’s a can of worms. [Sarra chuckles.]

Beth
Or how did your mother pronounce your name was different sometimes, too, right, as you were saying Sarra?

Sarra
Yeah, I used to say, how does your mother pronounce your name? And then I realized, actually, I can’t just assume that everyone knows their mother, has a connection with their mother, even has a mother. So I stopped doing that as well. For a while I tried it because I thought it was cool. And like, no, that’s it’s a, it’s presumptuous on my part. Maybe you don’t have a relationship with your mother.

Mary
And maybe you’ve realized that pronouncing it like your mother pronounces it is too complicated for your conversation partner, in most cases, right? Like, there are languages that are so different from English. So if you’re know you’re talking to a Canadian, Anglophone, it’s just like, oh, you’re never gonna get this sound. So how do you want me to pronounce it is a beautiful way to ask, because it’s like, they’ve probably done a lot of work already to recognize how it’s possible for you, you Anglo Canadian, to pronounce it, that’s gonna give you the best chance.

Sarra
I had a conversation like that the other day with a Canadian friend, it wasn’t about a name, it was about the name of a food. So my friend had cooked this amazing dish called Mulukhia. And it’s just M-U-L-U-K-I-H-I-A right. But the “kihia”, of course, is a difficult sound. If you don’t have a mother tongue that pronounces that sound, the “kihia”, she so she and her her husband is an Arabic speaker from another country so he had been trying to kind of teach her the “kihia”, she’s been working on our Arabic. So she kept saying, Mala “kia” and she would get the “kihia” sound or all wrong. And I said, Listen, forget the “kihia”, it’s gonna take you years of practice, you don’t need it. If you say Mulukhia people will understand what you mean. It’s closer to Mulukhia, when you say Mulukhia and you just kind of skip the “kihia”, make it a “kia” , you know, situate it with something that an Anglophone ear can can hear. And then it still sounds close enough to the word. And I guess you get grace that way. You get more grace from people. And I think that’s how I feel about like, butchering names, the same thing if you, you know, if you exist in this kind of white centric, Eurocentric world just lessen the drama. [Mary laughs] So I think for me, that’s just what’s the quickest way to teach people how to pronounce your name so that it doesn’t become, like, a half hour conversation about my name, or hijacks this meeting, we’re in, for example, or distracts from this beautiful dish that we’re eating.

Mary
It’s about respect, like, how can I say it respectfully.

Beth
Okay, so let’s jump off of that. Because one of the situations I’m in these days, and we all are in because we’re in Zoom so much, I mean, we’re in it now, I can see the way your names are written. When people are coming into the room, you know, when I’m the facilitator, I see a name and I think, Hmm, should I try that name? Or should I ask them, thus singling them out as they’ve come into the room, because I do this kind of informal start before the start thing and just kind of welcoming people as they come in. Should I try it and then say, is that right?
Or should I single them out and say, I don’t even know. Hello you with the yellow background! [laughs] Can you share with me how I would pronounce your name? Which might be the better way?

Mary
Regardless of what I’m teaching on, I do begin all my classes by pronouncing people’s names. So I go straight for it. But I’ll also make myself vulnerable. I hate being wrong. I hate being wrong. I hate being wrong. And I’ll say that I hate being wrong. And yet, I’m going to be wrong right now. I’m going to pronounce your name in a way that’s probably not exactly right. And I want you to tell me exactly how I can pronounce it better. So this is my attempt.

So it’s me. I don’t like the feeling. Every single time I do it I hate the feeling of like, I’m about to say something out loud and I’m mispronouncing it. It internalizes this thing for me of I’m putting myself many times in a position where immigrants to Canada have had to live in this feeling, actually. When you have left your home language, your home culture, and you’ve packed it all up and move to a whole other country, you live in a place where you know, you’re not going to get it right all the time, because you just didn’t grow up in this culture, this language, this constant feeling of like, I’m probably gonna get this wrong. [laughs] Because it’s not my life’s experience. I know it’s nothing compared to the actual experience. But internally I have this feeling. And it makes me realize that for me to be uncomfortable in this, like, two seconds is worth it. Because what I’m creating by asking that, and I really do try, like Sarra will will guide us on this, to not make me the centre of it. Like it’s not about me. Oh, look at me. I’m so good at pronouncing names. I’m amazing, right? It’s, I’m gonna try, I’m gonna get it wrong, please guide me, and then don’t belabour it, follow their lead. If this is like, yeah, that’s good enough. I’m like, Oh, you’re so generous. Thank you so much. Move on. Right?

If they say that’s good enough, accept it, don’t go that’s like, really? Are you sure? Because I feel like I could do that “kihia” sound better, like no, are the American Anglo just move on. If they say that’s good, then accept it move on. If it’s somebody that you’re going to work with, in an ongoing basis, then take the time. Ask them maybe to do more, like give you more guidance offline, privately, if you need that. Ask them to record it, there are different, like there’s the LinkedIn pronunciation name part. There’s the Name Drop website, you can, they can send that to you. I know how to pronounce names now simply because I had that given to me. And I repeat it over and over and over again. And I say it over and over again. And when I do that, I can have faith that the next time I go to say, Anand Giridharadas, who’s like this great writer in the states who I asked and he sent me his name drop him like, I just listened to it over and over again. If I went by spelling, I would think it would pronounced “Anad Gearheadarhadas”, but it’s like, I just listened to it. Oh, it’s Anand Giridharadas. And now it flows. And now when I talk about him, it just flows. Because it’s speech therapy is repetition, you figure it out, you get it right. And then you repeat, you repeat, you repeat, you repeat.

So that’s a great way to do it for somebody who’s going to be your colleague moving forward. For somebody who you’re just meeting once, put in the time, but quickly move on, so that you’re not the centre of it. And you don’t make them the centre of it in case they’re not comfortable with that.

Sarra
Also, some people will actually just have substitute names, right? And just be like, just call me Jim. Just call me whatever. I see that in some cultures. And I’ve also seen people try and push back and be like, No, but what’s your real name? Listen, if they told you their name is Travis just call them Travis. But yeah, it’s definitely that fine balance, keeping everything in context of don’t centre yourself as the person who has the privilege of not having a “complicated name”, interesting name, but also make sure you’re not centering them to the point where they feel othered. And just like, there’s too much attention right now. Like, we’re just here, for a three hour workshop. You know, we’re not best friends. [laughs] You don’t need to, you know, just it’s fine. Go with Sarah. It’s all good. If I tell you go with Sarah, just go with Sarah. It’s just that fine balance.

Beth
That’s really helpful. I absolutely could see how that would centre that person in a way that was at the very least mildly uncomfortable, but at the most just making them want to leave the whole session and get out of there because they’re now the centre. Like they didn’t expect that,  that’s highly embarrassing, you know, all sorts of other emotions in there for sure. Yeah, that’s a real risk.

Sarra
Yeah, if you do it enough, it’s respectful and inclusive. And if you push it too far, then it has a you know, opposite effect and it can feel exclusionary or just othering. And if you’re someone who already doesn’t look like everyone in the room, has an accent that’s different from everyone in the room, you’re already quite self conscious about being in that space. And you might not be. Some people just do not care. [laughs] They’re like, it doesn’t matter, pronounce my name any way. And you need to leave room for that as well. Some people don’t care.

Beth
That’s such a great comment because if you care about your name, like I care about my name, I like people when they you know to pronounce it correctly. But so then I suppose I want to put that on someone else. And I shouldn’t, should I, because it’s important to me, it may not be important to them and they go no call me Jim or call me Travis or that’s fine. And it really, we have to accept that it IS fine for that person. It may not be fine for us. And we wouldn’t do that. But that is just yeah, get out of our own thing.

Mary
Tough luck!

Sarra
Yeah. And just also you might have a name that even in your mother tongue people can’t pronounce and struggle with. Like even in Arabic there are names, like what? Huh? So you’ve probably lived your whole life being other in your name anyway.

Beth
I actually spoke to somebody the other day who was from Mexico, who is from Mexico, and I won’t say their name because then people will know who I’m talking about. But they said, actually, in Mexico, this is also a very uncommon name, this name that I have. And I’m like, I find that interesting as well, right? That they’re unique among their own culture and peoples.

Sarra
This is hard to gauge like it takes a lot of, of emotional intelligence, right? Like, you really need to be reading the room, paying attention, looking at the nonverbal cues, like reading the body language, even looking around the room and seeing how other people are reacting to this conversation that you’re having with that person in a forum. There’s a lot of onus on the person who’s, you know, who’s running the room. The facilitator, the leader of the meeting, the boss. There is a lot of onus on them to just be on top of it. And it can be difficult. That also means that we need to give grace for mistakes, as Mary had pointed out, right?

Like, that person is also feeling uncomfortable, because, you know, maybe you’re someone senior, maybe you’re someone pretty smart, that everyone thinks is smart, I don’t want to look stupid, because I can’t pronounce Sarra properly. You know, just also just make sure you’re not dehumanizing that person if they’re making the effort. Especially if not, you’re not used to it. It’s a habit that you’re trying to develop, and you make mistakes. So you need grace.

Beth
I love that. We all need grace about so many things. This is just one of the things, isn’t it?

Sarra
We do. The world would be a little bit less difficult if we gave more grace [laughs] to everyone.

Mary
And on that too, the idea of accepting, you know, their offering of this is how I think you can handle your name. When you really, really listen to how they say their name and if you have a fighting chance of getting it right, when you say it back to them, if you get it right in a way that speaks to how their mother pronounced their name, or how they grew up with it, the payoff is huge. The payoff is massive for both of you. Like you can see that they feel it internally in a profound way that they are seen. And when you feel that you’ve done that for somebody, it’s equally as profound for you. It’s lovely. And that’s why I do it. I know, I feel vulnerable when I try. I worry I’m gonna get it wrong. But man, when I get it even, like 80%, right? The payoff is huge. For me, personally, I get to feel this joy. [laughs]

Beth
And it’s helping the other person feel included. It’s about belonging, isn’t it? We want participants in our rooms, whatever our training situations look like, our meetings, we want people to feel like they belong there. A name could seem like such a small thing, but it’s not.

Sarra
Oh it’s a huge [laughs] belongingness. And I mean, I could talk forever about it, especially, you’re talking from the perspective of being in a classroom or, you know, facilitating, but I look at it from a workplace perspective. It really is that deep. You know, if you’ve been in a team, like, you know, you see people who’ve been in a team for years, no one even bothers to try and pronounce their name properly. They’re like la, la, la, I’ll just call you this. But with a little bit of effort, you could just try and pronounce it a little bit closer to how they can but you’re choosing not to bother. So the message I’m getting is that it’s doesn’t matter to you. And so it’s just, and maybe something the person doesn’t pick up at the time, it’s not conscious. But then when someone like Mary or myself or you know, actually ask them, How should I pronounce your name, and takes a minute or two to learn it, right, then they start to feel oh, wait. But my team has never done this before. But actually, this person who just met me in a meeting for half an hour took the time.

Beth
I like what you’re saying, I mean, so important in a short workshop, or short meeting or whatever, but so much more important if you’re a colleague of the person, you’re working on a long term project, you’re working with them forever, as a colleague in your organization.
Mary, I think you have a an example that you had in the video. And that was sort of I don’t know if it was a composite case, but a woman that their colleagues never pronounced their name right. What’s the impact of that, you know, whether it’s a colleague over time, or just, you know, we facilitators working with a group for, you know, six months, and there’s eight meetings or that kind of thing? What’s the impact when we don’t ever learn how to say their name correctly?

Mary
Well, you lose people, they don’t feel like they belong, and they won’t stay. And this is what happened in this case. This woman who is a gifted employee in a company, I won’t name it. Whose senior to her colleague, a white male, who every single time over the 15 years that she worked there, he mispronounced her name every time. He would joke about it. Oh, I can never get that right. I can’t I just can’t get it.
When he was introducing her to new clients, which just completely undermined her professionalism, when she told me that you could see the impact on her in her face, like you can see the hurt and the anger honestly. Like how disrespectful. Every single time for 15 years, he mispronounced her name and laughed it off. That says something to her.

Beth
I can’t imagine.

Mary
Yeah. And then you leave. Or if you can’t afford to leave, you stay and you just feel invisible.

Beth
I know we want to talk about microaggressions. And we probably already have been, but that feels like a macro aggression over time like that. That is big. But can you tell me about microaggressions around names or other speech related things that you often talk about?

Mary
Well, that’s a microaggression. But to me, microaggressions are aggressions. [They all chuckle.] Who knows what’s micro, the impact on the person probably not actually, like, it’s just that it happens often. And we don’t know, we haven’t noticed it in the past.

Sarra
And they are cumulative. And so they become macro.

Mary
I don’t think I have any special knowledge about microaggressions and their impact. I think we all have an awareness now. And one way to look out for it around names is to take some time to listen, be a better listener. That’s gonna help a lot actually, for probably all microaggressions. Be a better listener, be aware of the people around you. When it comes to names, when it comes to this is also true, I mean, around accent, so we all have an accent. And I love this study, though, because it’s by a guy named Ethan Kutlu. And he asked a group of people, a group of students to listen to a lecture. Their job was to write down, to transcribe what was said, sentence by sentence like not, not the whole lecture, but sentence by sentence. And the person who was the speaker had an Indian English accent. So they’re from India, spoke perfect English. Listeners didn’t know what the person looked like, they transcribed these sentences. They were given a picture, half of them were given a picture of a white person, and half of them are given a picture of a South Asian person. And for the half who was given the picture of a South Asian person, so here it is, Indian English. And they look like they’re from India, and they spoke English. Those students were able to transcribe that those sentences with 53% accuracy. So not great, they understood about half of what that person was saying.

The same voice, the same Indian English, the other half of the students were given the picture of a white person. So same Indian English, white person’s picture, they were able to transcribe that with 83% accuracy. So they just understood it better because the person was white, not because the English was any different. So this tells you a lot, I think, about listening, and how we can understand things better when we think we’re going to understand them. When it comes from somebody who looks like me, so I understand them. So somebody who doesn’t look like me, oh, I don’t understand that. It’s the exact same in auditory input. So the message is, open your ears, assume you’re going to understand it. Give yourself the best case scenario of bringing this information in, let the sounds come in, be open. Believe that you’re going to perceive it right. Because if you don’t, you actually will have a harder time understanding these names, or these words that come from, quote accented English. So the onus is on the listener. The onus historically has been on the person speaking like I, and I’m the first to admit this, my, my first foray into this world was through a flawed practice called accent reduction. As a speech pathologist, that’s what I did, I helped people, like, you know, modify their accents. And then years and years and years doing that, like, I’m like, you know, I’m not really doing much to change them, I just mostly increase their confidence, like a little tip or trick here and there helps them but overall, like they’re just bringing themselves into the room in a, in a more confident way.

The onus is on the listener. When you assume the person has an accent, so you’re not going to understand them, well, you know what? You’re not going to understand them. But if you go into a conversation with open ears believing that you will understand them. That when you when you introduce yourself to somebody, and they have a name you don’t recognize, but you say to yourself, I’m just going to take in these sounds. I’m going to listen in a way that makes me believe that I can repeat this later accurately, pronounce it right, then you’re going to be able to do it. You just open your ears we have, you know, we have a tendency to be worried we’re not going to understand something or it’s going to be an unfamiliar name and I’m going to get it wrong. Or we don’t want to take the risks. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable. Allow yourself to be open, take in these sounds, you’ll just do better.

Beth
That’s so important. The onus is on the listener. I mean it’s so wrapped up in in bias but also metacognitive thinking, I think, isn’t it it’s like, the more we’re aware of what that bias is doing to our brains in that particular moment and just recognize, okay, I see that that tendency might be there, I’m going to open my ears even more. And just know that I can do that. I don’t know, it’s like a little bit of self talk. But it’s like that thinking about thinking. You’re noticing more, we’re encouraging people to notice more about their thinking.

Sarra
This links to the microaggression topic that we were just talking about. Because I think even the way we approach accents, and I’m talking about when I speak about all of this, I’m usually speaking about in the workplace, that’s where I am. Even the way we call attention to people’s accents, the way we avoid asking some people questions in a meeting, because we’re afraid that we won’t understand their accent.
The way even when someone says something that is not clear because you’re struggling to understand their accent. I’m using that wording very intentionally, you are struggling to understand their accent. It’s not that they have a difficult accent, you are struggling to understand it.
But yeah, even though the way kind of people then seek clarity can be othering. There’s a way to do it that is respectful. Same thing, same same thing that we said about names, so that it’s respectful, that shows that you care, but you’re not othering them or necessarily, you know giving more attention to them then they are comfortable with.

So it really does go back to emotional intelligence. So I’m gonna keep saying that, because it’s my favourite thing. But yeah, those that kind of the name accent portion of being in a workplace, it’s small, and you might not even notice it. But it really does depend on the context, it depends on the workplace you come from, the struggle is harder when you’re, for example, in a company that is a majority white people, for example. So it’s just another layer of othering. If you’re in an organization, or a company, whatever the size, where there are lots of people who are immigrants or look different, or it’s just it’s a different experience, right? There might be othering in other ways. I’m not saying there aren’t layers to it, because everything is intersectional, there might be you know, the way Black people are treated as different from the way I don’t know, brown people are treated or the way women, Black women versus you know, so there’s definitely intersections to it. But definitely, if you tick all the, let’s say, boxes under the privilege pyramid, let’s say so your white, cisgender, a man, I think it applies to women as well. But if you’re ticking all of that, and then you walk into a space, that people look like you it’s fine, right? But it’s, it’s really hard, if you’ve never experienced it, it’s really, really, really, really hard to understand what it feels like to step into a space where you are foreign and odd. And othered in every single way. And at least you know, now in the corporate world, you can be on a Zoom call, people don’t even need to see your photo or see what you look like. So there, you can actually avoid a lot of those. But the name [laughs], the accent, you can’t you can’t avoid speaking to people, you can’t avoid showing your name. So it’s small. And for some people, as I said, it might not even register for them. But it’s, it can be so profound. It can be so profound.

Mary
And it can be their voice, you know, we have the visible minority phrase, which is not ideal honestly.

Sarra
I would say global majority because we are actually more. [laughs]

Mary
No, but the fact that this phrase existed.

Sarra
Yes.

Mary
Right, that this phrase existed.

Sarra
Ahh. Yeah.

Mary
Is interesting. And I’ll add well, I mean, if that phrase is gonna exist, what about audible minority? That’s, that’s the other piece of it. Sure, I can see that you’re quote, different, but also sounding different than the other people in your workplace. That puts you at a disadvantage?

Sarra
Absolutely. Especially if you’re trying to work in an industry where you need to talk to people. We see it. I have, you know, I’m not gonna mention the organization. But I was in an organization, in Ottawa, that works with other employers. You know, we were grinding trying to get people who are obviously quote unquote, visible minorities, were immigrants, were people who look different, spoke different all of that. We were trying to connect them with this organization who would then connect them with employers. And someone in that organization said, this employer that we work with, who was based in the States, does not want people and she actually listed a few nationalities and said, they don’t want to hire people like that because their accents are too strong for a customer service role. And it was said in the most blasé matter of fact way in the middle of a meeting. I remember just being astounded. And I looked around the table, and no one else even picked up that it was inappropriate. No one.

Beth
Wow, I’m astounded in this day and age.

Sarra
No one. And this person, this woman who said that phrase was herself, not a white woman. But she had been raised in Canada so she didn’t have…she was born and raised in Canada. So if you hear her, you would assume she’s a white woman.

Beth
Right. Yeah. Sort of fish in water. You can’t see it, necessarily. Yeah. But, man, some of that’s so surprising to me now, but it shouldn’t be.

Sarra
No, it’s honestly, if we’re still surprised, then, you know, we just you know, there’s no reason to be surprised about this.
It is absolutely it’s, it’s not the first time I’ve seen it. If you’re going into a customer service role, or anything that involves speaking with people, and you’re in a context, like a North American company, or a European company, the accent thing will come up. And it’s funny. What I find funny is that there are only certain accents that people don’t want to hear. There’s such an accent hierarchy, because your experience of having an accent, let’s say if you’re from India, versus if you’re from Nigeria, versus if you’re from Mexico, very different.

Mary
Oh, and people like love a Scottish accent, Irish accent, British accent, Australian accent. Well, what’s everyone got in common in those countries? Majority white.

Sarra
Majority white.

Beth
I actually haven’t heard that term “accent hierarchy” before. But of course, that’s…there is we know, that now that you put a name to that thing that we do know.

Sarra
It’s intersectional.

Beth
What about when we think about people facilitating? So I’m a white woman and one of the things I need to think about is, am I the right person to facilitate this thing? You know, do I pull someone else to co-facilitate in with me that is more representative of the group, for example? Or do I completely refer something, you know, away from me to give an opportunity to someone who, you know, doesn’t look like me or they’re more effective for whatever reason with that group? I don’t know, I guess, what am I trying to say that? What is our responsibility if we are white facilitators to lift up our co-facilitators or our colleagues in the field who might have an accent? Who might have a name that may be difficult for people to pronounce? Like, how do we keep drawing them in? I could see microaggressions happening when I would be co-facilitating with someone because they’d want to direct their questions to me, and not to my Indigenous colleague, or, you know, whoever is not white beside me. Gosh, there’s so many little questions in there do. Do you get what I’m saying? [they laugh] What is our responsibility?

Mary
I think Sarra will have more of a lived experience around this. But I’ll say my experience in starting this particular work, I will tell you, I was intensely uncomfortable entering the realm of diversity, inclusion, equity. It’s just like, that’s not what I do. I’m a white woman, why would I do that work? I don’t do that work. I have a specialty in linguistics and phonetics, and I see that something that I know can help people feel included in the workplace. And I sought advice and like, How can…I don’t want to be a face in this in this field. Because that’s not what I do. I just doesn’t feel like what I do is not my area. But I do have, I have this very specific skill that I can pass on that I think will help. And so I don’t claim to be doing anything other than that. I’m gonna use what I have to make this world a better place. That’s all I want to do. Now around how to include others when you feel like maybe you’re getting passed the mic too often? Well, you just pass it right back to another person who should have the floor, just pass the mic. It’s just simply I don’t I mean, I’m jumping in to answer Sarra’s question. [laughs] And now I will pass the mic. Because this is this is the role that we have is like we’re being given a microphone in situations because of the way it’s always been, now how to change that is just, you know, hey, use your power. What gifts do I have? What power do I have? Then pass it on to somebody who’s more worthy of it in fact. Over to you Sarra. No pressure.

Sarra
Oh, gosh, yes, no pressure at all. Everything that Mary said. And I would also add, I know, this is a very hard pill to swallow as someone who’s white, like I know, it’s hard. It’s hard to, especially if you’re white, but also in other ways are less privileged. Like you’re not a cisgender male, for example. You’re a woman so life is still harder for you, right as a white woman than it would be as a white man. And sometimes you do feel that the opportunities are sparse anyway, like they’re not available even for you as a white woman, compared to any Chad out there. Right? [laughs] And that’s the grace that I give when I think about it, like, I just remember like, Well, I mean, white women have to pay bills to write, like, you also want work.

So okay, so is it just about every single piece of work that you get you’re just gonna send it off to someone? No, but it’s really, you know, what did they hear what Mary just said, for example? That’s how people will perceive it like, but what what are you saying that I don’t deserve a livelihood or that I don’t have something to contribute? That’s not what we’re saying. What we’re saying is that you have been given this opportunity, whether it’s a paid opportunity, whether it’s an opportunity to show up in a space for people to you know, see who you are and learn your name, learn something about you. Are you actually the best equipped person to speak about this? That is something that is very hard to process, I’m not, none of this is easy.

If you’re comfortable, then you’re probably doing it wrong. It’s not supposed to be easy, right? And every time you feel uncomfortable, just remember that there are people out there who have no choice but to be uncomfortable and right, because that’s where you’re placed in the world, because of how you look or where you come from. So no one is saying it’s going to be comfortable. But just remember that there are millions of people out there who have no choice but to operate from discomfort [laughs] from being othered, and yet, you’re still resilient, and you’re surviving, and you’re out there, and you’re making an impact, right?

So when it comes to that kind of the equity part of like, it’s not fair, why is it? Why is it that I, as a white woman, have to make all of these sacrifices or me as a white man, why do I have to make all these sacrifices? Yeah, it’s, it’s uncomfortable, right? But, and maybe you haven’t directly been, you know, contributed to the system or, but in the end, you’re part of it, you’re benefitting from the system. And it’s 2023. And we’re trying to flip the script and just open up opportunities for other people. So ask yourself, am I actually the best placed person? Am I the expert?

So Mary and I came up with this workshop. I’m not a speech therapist, I would love to find the time to learn linguistics and be as smart as Mary, I’m never going to be a speech science expert. So we leave the bread to the bakers. I’m not touching that part. But Mary also knows that she does not have the lived experience of being someone who is an immigrant, who looks different, who has, you know, a name that people might struggle to pronounce, all of that. And so then you invite that voice in. And I will say that the same way Mary was vulnerable and said that she was uncomfortable kind of approaching this. I also have a lot of discomfort because I, yes, I’m an immigrant. Yes, I’m a Black woman. I mean, I’ve got a lot of things. I’m a woman, I’m Black, I’m your divergent. I’m fat. What else? I’m African, like from the continent. I’m Muslim, there’s a lot going on. Right. But I still have a lot of privilege compared to other people who have, who might, you know, have the exact same background as I am, because I grew up upper middle class, right. I was from the city of Khartoum. It was in, in Sudan. So I was in the capital city. I grew up in an educated family. I received some of the best education that was available for people that in my time in Sudan, because I had educated parents who were professionals. I was also set on the right track from the beginning. I didn’t make as many mistakes in my career or, you know, I managed to avoid a lot of things. I had great connections that set me up from the start.
So I got the best jobs like I, I applied very few jobs in Sudan, most of the jobs that I got in Sudan were through networks. So I know all of that. I’m also light skinned in Sudan, which comes with its own level of privilege.

Of course, we can, we could do a whole session about colourism. [laughs] But you know, so there’s that. And my name is Sarra (Note: she pronounces it like Sarah at this point]. It’s an easy name. It’s an international name. I don’t have I don’t think I don’t have an accent I’m, I have an ambiguous accent. When I came to Canada, I sounded quite British because I was around a lot of British people and I had a British education. And to this day, if I sit with people who speak with a British accent for more than like, half an hour, I start to sound more British, it comes out. But I’ve been living in Canada now for seven years. But all this to say that I came to Canada as an immigrant with such privilege as an immigrant. And I had a lot of struggles and hardships. But compared to other people, it’s just a drop in the water. A drop in the ocean, to what other people have experienced, right?

The way I see my role in this kind of thing is okay, so if you have…essentially most of my privilege is around proximity to whiteness, that’s, let’s just call it what it is. It is proximity to whiteness, my name is palatable, my accent is palatable, my skin tone is palatable. My hair type is more curly than kinky. So all of these things make white people more comfortable approaching me and that is the truth. It’s a hard truth, right? So as I was, you know, coming to Canada, struggling with all the struggles that are being, you know, that you have being an immigrant but also getting access to so many things because of all the privileges that I had that made it easier. I could, I could easily find a job because no one had to worry about my accent when they hired me and I work in training. So it is, I do talk to people. My journey of being an immigrant here in Canada. And just I discovered a lot of these privileges after I came to Canada, unfortunately. I grew up very sheltered and comfortable. I didn’t have my privilege challenged, right, so this discomfort that I’m talking about, I also went through my own journey and continue to go through my own journey of discomfort being who I am and what I look like, and what I sound like. But what I’m trying to say is that, I decided to say, okay, so given that I’ve got all these privileges, that give me access to certain spaces that make me more approachable or palatable, or whatever the wording you want to use, how can I use that to benefit people who don’t have it? And that’s what drew me to Mary’s work. When I first met her, I was like, oh, I want to be doing this, because I’d be good at this. Because I’m like, I know I’d be good at this.

Mary
The things that you know complement the things that I know. And overlap, there’s, there’s a ton of overlap. You’re a beautiful bridge, my friend. [Sarra laughs.] The insight that I get from you is beyond any university degree I’ve ever received. So I’m so grateful too.

Sarra
Thank you. All I have to say to that is whatever you have received, I have received from other people. I’m all about paying it forward and not paying it back.

Mary
And you’re candid, this is the thing I love about you. [Sarra laughs.] You say stuff that no one else has said. I’m like, oh, there’s the truth.

Sarra
It’s in neurodivergence coming out. I can’t mince my words. I try. I’ve tried for 40 years to learn how to mince my words and failed.

Beth
We need candid. We need candid in this day and age more than ever, I’m sure.

Mary
And so let’s celebrate if you think that it’s your neurodivergence that makes you candid. Well, thank God for your neurodivergence, sister, I love it. [Sarra laughs.] It’s what makes you the bridge you are.

Sarra
I am grateful for that aspect of my ADHD for sure. But all this to say that I am actually very uncomfortable saying I work in DEI especially because I’ve mostly actually been just working a corporate job and trying to do this on the side. And I do this mostly in like side conversations in my team or my colleagues more than actually doing active work on it. But in the end, I decided that I do have that privilege, I can be that bridge, right? So instead of being obnoxious about it [laughs], how can I flip that and actually be useful? I can sit there and be like, Oh my God, I recognize my privilege, you know, [Mary laughs] and this ???. Sure you can do that. But after you acknowledge your privilege and be obnoxious about it, how are you going to actually benefit people who look like you people who talk like you people who come from where you come from people who have a similar lived experience, but probably 100 times harder. So that’s why whatever, I remind myself whatever experience I have, there is a darker skinned woman who’s going through 10 times what I’m going through. Whether it’s the way you know, my skin color, my my hair texture, my accent, my religion, my size, all of that. There’s always, you know, and I’m not saying this to say I don’t dismiss my feelings, they are valid, my experiences, my struggles are valid, but how can you use that to then propel you to be more helpful, instead of just feeling like a victim? Because like, we can all feel like victims. Life is hard. And it’s full of, you know, cisgender white men, life is hard. [laughs] And they just make life hard, right? But we can just try and move past that and just say, Okay, I have these talents. I have these skills. I have this lived experience. How can I better the world around me so that people don’t have to struggle? Even if it’s struggle I haven’t directly experienced, I’ve benefitted from a system that has made other people struggle, so let’s not stop that there.

Beth
So it does become about action. But I appreciate you sharing, you know, your privilege that you’re sharing with us, but also the piece about discomfort. I think that’s very key, that this work, all of this stuff we’ve been talking about, it’s not easy. We will feel discomfort, whoever we are, you know, we are all different people unique in this roomful of three of us. I mean, I’m a learning professional. I don’t say that learning is always easy. In fact, I say the opposite. I want people to feel some discomfort because that’s how we learn. It’s a great thing to keep telling ourselves that it could be uncomfortable, that’s kind of the point. Can we just sit with that and feel the fear and do it anyway? Or whatever cliché you want to throw it? I mean, gosh, I could really keep on talking to you two forever, but I think we should move to a close for our episode here. Can I leave you with saying a little bit about the partnership that you two have, because I do imagine that you’re great complements for each other. You’re leading this workshop and probably other things about how to pronounce people’s names and collaborating from both of your expertise areas. What’s the impact you’re hoping your work together will have?

Mary
Almost everything I do I feel like it’s about planting seeds. So this work with Sarra is about planting the seed to become a better listener, to your colleagues or your participants. We’ve chosen to make this about names because it’s, to me the moment. It creates a moment in an interaction with a person that is profound. But that moment requires, I mean, it does require some skill. It requires openness and skill.
And so what our work together does is give a foundation for both of those, for the openness to create a conversation to ask the question, How would you like me to pronounce your name? How should I pronounce your name? And really, I feel like Sarra brings her expertise in her experience in the world to that, to the conversation around how to pronounce names well. What I bring is more the linguistic skill. So I’ll it’s ultimately it’s an introduction to phonetics, it’s a linguistics 101. I love teaching it. I loved learning it. I still remember my first year course at University of British Columbia. Dr. Kincaid would be so proud of me. So I love teaching it because it shows people things that they have actually known their whole lives, but it explicitly describes them and helps them explicitly describe them, so that they can then do better.
It brings to the surface, what’s underneath all of us communicating every single day. We’re all using consonants, we’re all using vowels, we’re all using prosody. But to name it, so that they can access that knowledge to then go outside of their comfort zone and try to pronounce things in ways they didn’t before. I provide that skill, Sarra provides the openness to be able to execute that.

Sarra
Yeah, I feel like Mary does the science, the hack that you can take home with you, right? The skill. And I just helped kind of contextualize that and just remind people that it’s all uncomfortable, if you’re uncomfortable, that colleague with the name you can’t pronounce is 10 times more uncomfortable, and that’s okay. You know, it’s just kind of a reminder, it’s okay. We’re all here. We’re all gonna mess up. Grace. That’s the most important thing. Just show each other grace and humanize the person that you’re talking to. They’re not just a person with, you know, a name you can’t pronounce or an accent you don’t understand. They have a story. There’s a story behind their accent. There’s a story behind their name. And it’s a very, very basic icebreaker. To be honest. It’s a universal icebreaker, I would say, pronouncing someone’s name. It’s the first thing you do. Hi, my name is Sarra.

Mary
I love how you ended our conversation we had when she’s like, names are important. They’re our identity.

Sarra
They are it’s your story. Your story starts with your name.

Beth
Thank you both for sharing some of your story with me today and all of us who are listening. I so appreciate the things you taught me today. And thank you for the work that you’re doing to bring this work out into the world. It’s been a pleasure to have you.

Sarra
Thank you.

Mary
Thank you Beth Cougler Blom.

Sarra
Yes, Thank you Beth Cougler Blom for giving us this space. [They all laugh.]

Beth
You got it!

[Episode outro]
Beth
I hope you enjoyed the conversation that I had with Mary and Sarra. One of the things that’s still standing out for me about our conversation is how they said that the onus should be on the listener to work harder to be able to understand people’s accents and learn how to pronounce their names. I think that’s such an important concept and practice for all of us to remember because it’s up to us as individuals then to tell ourselves and notice for ourselves, oh, I’m not understanding this person, so that must mean I need to work harder to be able to work with this person, to collaborate with them, and there’s something that I need to do to be a better listener, to help make that happen. And so it just encourages us to remember that we have work to do to bring that effort to the table, to be better listeners when working with people in any situation, but of course when we’re facilitating the group, that onus really absolutely is on us to be able to get our participants’ names right, pronounce them in ways that our participants’ are happy with and makes them feel included and that they belong in the group, and maybe that just helps us draw the whole group together as well. To come together and to learn together and to collaborate together in the ways that we really hope will benefit the group and their learning. So thinking about the what seems like a simple act of pronouncing participants’ names correctly is an overall, overarching act of helping include people and fostering belonging in the group for everyone that is there. I will say, too, this whole issue of pronouncing participants’ names, it doesn’t just happen across cultures. I actually had a great aunt myself whose name was Theresa. It was a name that when you looked at it written down on paper you would think it was Teresa, because that is the more common way to say T-H-E-R-E-S-A. But Theresa was her name. And so that can happen even within people who have and share the same culture, can’t it? Because we don’t know what different things people have done with names to be creative and wonderful and do something different than other people in their own culture have even seen. So we’re not just talking about intercultural communication or multicultural workplaces, we’re talking about everyone that we come across, in our family and in our friends, and in our work groups that we can apply these practices and these learnings to. So I really want to thank Mary and Sarra for their expertise that they shared with us today. Go check out their websites in the show notes so that you can find them again and maybe take some of their learning opportunities to go further in the work.

In the next episode of the podcast, I interview Julias Alego about music and how we can use it as a facilitation tool. Julias and I are going to talk about all sorts of related to using music and maybe even dancing in our facilitated workshops and courses, and some of the considerations that we want to think about when choosing music and engaging participants in that music. And maybe some of the pitfalls and caution areas that can come along with it because music means something to people, so there are some careful considerations and sensitivities around using music and what music means. So join us next time on the podcast for Music as a Facilitation Tool with Julias Alego. I’ll see you then.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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