Want to be culturally sensitive? Start with saying my name right

<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

“The best thing that happened today is one teacher asked how to say my name!” my child says exultantly on the first day of a new school year.

“And the others?”

“Oh, they don’t care,” she says.

She loves her Indian name and anticipates my next question. “And no, I didn’t correct them because it’s awkward, and anyway, what’s the point?”

She then notes that many in the media had failed to correctly pronounce the Indian name of the newly minted Australian Local Hero of the Year.

“It’s totally cringe,” she says, deadpan.

‘“Cringeworthy,” I mutter, but the matter is closed.

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Amar Singh, a self-described “migrant, Sikh and true-blue Aussie”, founded Turbans 4 Australia to help people facing food insecurity, notably during bushfires and floods when disaster aid is critical. In a time of polarisation and compassion fatigue, recognising Singh and the volunteers is a welcome reminder of the power of the individual to make a difference. Now Singh will be feted across the country. And as he harnesses his newfound status to share his mission, he might reasonably decide that now is not the time to be fussy about emphasising the appropriate syllable of his name. But for his sake and the sake of all those migrants who are resigned to having their name changed, mispronounced and mangled, I hope we can accord him this basic courtesy.

Amar is a beautiful word that means immortal in Hindi. But what do you do when a name is too foreign, too long or too hard? You could ask the person to say it. Or ask someone else who knows. You could even appeal privately to Google.

Instead, Singh’s teacher problem-solved by swapping his name to David.

“I know that’s your name, but what are you called?” is a question I encounter too. Worse is, “Well, with that name, I am not even going to bother,” conveniently blending petulance with blame. So, throughout medical school, I used my monosyllabic childhood nickname, only to realise my error when during my search for an internship, one referee wrote a vexed, “I don’t think I know this person.”

This was the trigger to revert to my “real” name, and develop my own triage system of expressing polite objection to its mispronunciation.

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Important and busy people (to my mind) received a free pass. You also didn’t teach a dying patient how to say your name, their gratitude was enough. Healthier patients could try harder and indeed, requested it. At speaking events, I considered arbitrary factors like the significance of the occasion, whether I would be invited back and whether the host looked receptive. On radio and television, I spoke to the producer and was impressed when conscientious presenters checked with me before going on air. Those who made the effort almost always got it right but even if they didn’t, their effort was a sign of respect.

This changed one day on prime-time radio in Sydney when the presenter began by mispronouncing my name. I let it slide, trusting his producer to correct him.

His second attempt was ridiculous and grating but still, I kept quiet and focused on the interview. Then, as if trying to prove a point, he made another long and doomed attempt. He knew it but somehow couldn’t bring himself to stop. I don’t know what was more humiliating – his rank disregard for me or my lack of self-respect that prevented me from interjecting.


Determined to avoid a repeat, I adopted a different approach. In every new setting, from work to home, I started with, “Let me show you how to say my name,” and noted how grateful most people were. But this left the question of what to do when those grateful people felt bad when they still had trouble. I could either say it didn’t matter or that it mattered so much that I’d keep helping until they got it. I first practised this during a year spent at Harvard, the same year my daughter entered high school. Encouraging her to use own her name, I figured that the intellectual giants who sought to shape my worldview could surely learn how to say mine.

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At Harvard, everybody was a “somebody” and I had to overcome my diffidence to ask that they pay the same attention to my name as I did to theirs, often joking that there would be a quiz at the end of the class. I loved that people willingly rose to the challenge, including at graduation, the time-honoured place to trip up.

This week, as Australia’s local hero eloquently heralded the importance of mutual respect in a multicultural society, I was slogging through compulsory training in cultural sensitivity. I saw all kinds of questionable exhortations but nowhere the humble advice to take the trouble to get someone’s name right.

In treating patients from many different countries, I have found one way to open the door to difficult conversations is to start with an interest in their name, its origin and how they say it. Dale Carnegie recognised this when he observed that a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.

In a country where half the population was either born overseas or has at least one parent born overseas, there should be no place for intellectual laziness and cultural complacency.

The next young man on his way from Punjab to Sydney should know that he won’t have to change his name to David to fit in. He can be called Amar and we will learn to say it right.

• Ranjana Srivastava is an Australian oncologist, award-winning author and Fulbright scholar. Her latest book is called A Better Death