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#SayMyName (correctly please!)

20 March 2017

Our names are part of our identity, so it can have an impact on us when they’re pronounced incorrectly. To mark the UN End Racism Day 21 March, the Law Society is asking what’s in a name for #SayMyName. Bansi Desai explains why it’s important to her

In an ideal world, it would be fabulous if my name were not a struggle for both the people saying it and for the person having to hear people struggle with it (me). It should be a non-issue, and yet it seems to be such a common problem that I am writing an article about it. My name is Bansi. It is pronounced Bun-see. Not Ban-sigh or Ban-zee, and certainly not Bonzai. It is impressive how difficult a two-syllable name can be for a lot of people, but for some reason, it is. But despite this, if I am being truly honest, I know that the problem does not lie with people, but with the fact that the English alphabet just does not have enough letters to fully translate my name from my mother tongue, Gujarati, into English. ‘Bansi’ is the closest spelling I will get. Due to this, and because ‘Bansi’ is not a common name in Western society, I have learnt to accept that this problem of mispronounciation will keep occurring.

However, it can be positive having a different name, and it can certainly be a talking point. I have made an art of addressing the incorrect pronounciation of my name. The conversation often begins with ‘Ooh that’s an interesting name, quite unusual’. Yes, I suppose in this part of the world it is unusual. In India, where it originated from, it is fairly common. But if I get a comment like that, I normally begin with explaining my name’s origins and meaning. My name means flute, in particular the flute played by a Hindu God – Krishna. My name has a gender and it is tradtionally for males, but my parents thought it worked for their daughter too (I agree). I love the meaning of my name, I love that it has a meaning in general and that it is connected to my cultural roots.

After telling them about my name’s origin and meaning, I explain how to pronounce it. The best way I’ve found is to tell people it’s ‘like a bun in the sea!’ – praying that this visual aid will help with not only being able to say my name correctly, but also remembering how to say it correctly in future. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. I have to kindly remind people every so often how to say it, because I know some people will still get it wrong no matter how hard they try to remember and how hard I try to teach them. But only practice makes perfect, so I try not to push the correct pronounciation of my name with people I will only meet once in my life. It is with friends and colleagues that I take the time to teach them properly, as we will be spending a lot of time together, and it is better to correct them at the beginning than later, on when ‘Bonzai’ might very well be the name everybody ends up calling me by.   

Pronounciation of names is one of those things in life that is sensitive because it’s so personal, so I don’t think that there is a best time or a best way for people to ask ‘how do you pronounce your name?’. I think it’s natural for people to feel awkward or perhaps even embarassed that they have to ask, so I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and allow them to try. If they get it wrong, I will hopefully have taught them by the end of the conversation.   

What I would like, and I am sure it is the same for others who have the same issue as me, is for people to try and attempt to pronounce my name in the way that I have taught them, and to not give up trying to say it correctly because it is ‘too difficult’. It’s not difficult, it’s my name, and it would be nice to hear it in the way that it should be said. Ideally, I do not want to be in a position in life where I am seriously considering having to change my name to Bonzai for the ease of others – but then again, I might just have to.

Today is the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, known as End Racism Day. To mark the day we are asking how to say people's names properly with messages and videos about how to #SayMyName. No-one is perfect and we all get things wrong, but saying someone’s name wrong can make them feel unheard, unimportant, minimised. We’re highlighting the voices of individuals explaining what their name means to them, and when and how they would like to be asked how to pronounce their name. Watch the videos.

The Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division is our community providing tailored information, advice and training for ethnic minority solicitors.

Tags: equality | communication | diversity and inclusion

About the author

Bansi Desai is a legal assistant at Freeths LLP

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