Why Australian businesses should lift their name game

In a culturally diverse society like Australia, mastering multicultural names can give your business an edge over your competitors.

By Fiona Price

In a culturally diverse society like Australia, mastering multicultural names can give your business an edge over your competitors.

When people immigrate to an English-speaking country where locals aren’t familiar with their language and culture, even those who speak good English learn to expect some level of difficulty with communication. They encounter differences in accent and vocabulary to work around, and new social nuances around authority and small talk to sort out. For anyone with a non-Anglo name, there’s also a decision to be made about where to set the bar when it comes to name pronunciation.

Most people with non-Anglo names soon realise that expecting locals to pronounce their name like a native speaker of its language of origin just isn’t realistic. Sometimes this is because their native language is very different from English. Their name may have intonation, or include sounds English doesn’t have. Sometimes it’s because native English speakers feel the way the name is spelled doesn’t ‘match up’ with its pronunciation, or contains a combination of letters they don’t know how to interpret.

When trying to make social and professional connections in a new society, having a name people can’t say can be a real obstacle. Because of this, a lot of immigrants choose to select a Western name or settle on a ‘close enough’ version of their actual name. Priyanga might call himself ‘Pree’, Noémi might default to ‘Naomi’, Zhang Yunqian might call herself ‘Sally Zhang’ and accept that people are going to pronounce her surname as ‘zang’, rather than ‘jaang’. These strategies produce a version of their names that locals can manage and remember, names they recognise as theirs when someone addresses them.

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Often this ‘close enough’ pronunciation isn’t a good approximation of the original name. It’s a workable compromise that people arrive at after a trial period of introducing themselves, listening to locals trying to say it and figuring out what most of them can manage. Many people with non-Anglo names eventually start introducing themselves by the English Speaker Version to save time, effort and confusion, even if on some level this makes them wince inside.

As someone who works with name pronunciation, I myself often wince inside when I hear someone use an English Speaker Version of their name. And where it’s appropriate and when I’m confident of the actual pronunciation, I offer something much closer to it. If the person reiterates that they prefer the anglicised version, I respect that, embrace it and keep any wincing to myself. Usually, however, the person is astonished and impressed. They ask me how I knew how their name was pronounced, ask if I speak their language and show me a lot of warmth and interest.

Positive responses like these show the value of raising the bar on name pronunciation for any business that wants to connect with multicultural customers, affiliates, or staff. For someone who’s reluctantly embraced an inaccurate, anglicised version of their name, an organisation that opens communications with the correct pronunciation of their name demonstrates respect, builds rapport, and automatically differentiates themselves from the majority who need the safety rail of an adapted pronunciation.

Contributing Author: Fiona Price is a Melbourne-based cross-cultural communication specialist and expert on multicultural names.