On Monday, the internet bore witness to one of the most shocking revelations in a year of shocking revelations: We have apparently been pronouncing Chrissy Teigen’s name wrong all these years. “Gave up a long time ago. last name is tie-gen not tee-gen,” she revealed in a tweet, going on to say that at this point she even corrects people who pronounce it correctly. “it’s all v effed up,” she added. Apparently, Teigen’s passivity runs so deep that she essentially can’t bring herself to correct anyone about anything, even going so far as to say she would rather change her flight than correct a taxi driver heading to the wrong airport.
While that seems like a larger problem worth exploring in therapy, Teigen’s name dilemma is one that I and many others, including Ariana Grande, are intimately familiar with. The daily struggle of having a name that everyone mispronounces is manifold and never-ending. With every new introduction to someone who’s seen my name before hearing it, there is a minor mental dance that comes with deciding whether to gently correct the inevitable mispronunciation in a way that doesn’t make the mispronouncer feel bad or to simply allow the mistake to pass in the hopes that I’ll never interact with this person again. In my case, the correction is fairly simple: It’s Rae-chel, not Ra-shell. But the innocent follow-up of “Oh that’s an interesting way to spell Rachel” prompts yet another mental tango, this time deciding whether to simply smile and laugh or to launch into the admittedly wild story of why there are two additional letters in a ridiculously common name. (Briefly, a rogue nurse spelled both my first and middle names incorrectly, and due to the delayed receipt of my birth certificate, an inability to pay $100 for an arduous bureaucratic change, and a series of moves, the extraneous ‘l’ and ‘e’ have remained, in addition to an unwanted apostrophe in my middle name.)
It’s a satisfying story to tell, and one that usually breaks the ice in interviews when the hiring manager inevitably mispronounces my name. But at the same time, there is a sort of dissonance that widens a bit every time I tell it. Deep down, I can’t help but wonder, especially in professional contexts, if I am being unreasonable for expecting colleagues to correctly pronounce my name. I also know on some level that that fear of being seen as unreasonable is directly tied to the fact that I’m a young black woman in an industry dominated by older white men. What Teigen, Grande, and owners of countless other “difficult” names usually leave out with their polite correction or their silent resignation is that every single introduction carries an additional mental weight, especially in cases unlike mine where the supposedly complicated name isn’t one of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Bearers of ~interesting~ names not only have to constantly educate (or adapt, through shortening or anglicizing their names) in a society where non-Anglo names carry negative and often racist associations. They also have to choose whether to expend the extra emotional energy necessary to continually correct people when they repeatedly pronounce their name wrong—a subtle, unconscious sign of disrespect that is hard to articulate and exhausting to face. As Tasneem Raja wrote for NPR, that choice can be especially fraught in primarily white industries like journalism or entertainment. “If a professional colleague were to mispronounce my name, or someone interviewing me for a job, forget it,” Raja writes. “As a young brown woman trying to get a foothold in the overwhelmingly white and male journalism industry, the last thing I wanted was to be seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘militant’ or ‘demanding.’”
Even when the mispronunciation is harmless and unintentional—which most of them are! —the ensuing mental gymnastics can be draining when repeated day in and day out. That exhaustion is compounded when, because most mispronunciations are unintentional, the bearer of the difficult name has to mitigate an awkward apology issued by the usually contrite mispronouncer. An apology is of course eons better than callous indifference, but that particular little dance of pleasantries is one that I prefer to avoid, partially because recovering from it takes a mental fortitude I usually don’t possess when attempting to cash a check or pick up a coffee.
For someone like Teigen who has more of those little interactions than most average citizens would, it’s easy to imagine why she eventually gave up on the battle and jumped on the mispronunciation train to make her life easier. But I’d like to think there’s a better solution. Acknowledging that any interaction around this is going to be awkward, let’s all agree to ask about pronunciation when even a little in doubt. Its infinitely less awkward after all, to ask for pronunciation clarification than to find out you’ve been saying your co-worker’s name wrong for six months.