Mispronouncing Names and the Feeling of Belonging

Whether in a classroom, workplace or friendship group, if you’re not making enough effort to pronounce someone’s name you could be sending a message they are not welcome there. Your name is the greatest connection you have with your identity and background. When someone remembers it, you feel valued. When someone mispronounces it continuously, you feel like you don’t belong, or that they simply don’t care about you enough to make an effort.

Name mispronunciation falls into a category of microaggressions. It appears often when someone says “Your name is hard to pronounce”, or “I can’t pronounce that”, and then they simply move on! On the surface these comments may seem trivial — maybe even comical — but the recipient can often feel insulted or irrelevant in that environment. Remember, the person with the ‘unusual’ name is routinely trying hard to integrate, and such incidents can put up an invisible — but altogether real — barrier.

I’ve read many stories of people who have struggled with their names being butchered and anglicised. Many of them change their names or choose a nickname to be able to fit in. Like Gerardo, whose 5th grade teacher combined with the pressure to fit in as an immigrant, made him change his name to Jerry. Or Yejin Lee, who felt the impact of her name being mispronounced through her childhood and later in the workplace and managed to find creative ways of helping people pronounce her name. And so many more people with the lasting impact of having their names mispronounced throughout different stages of their lives.

It’s something that has recently also become evident in a story with Kamala Harris, where she faced jokes with her name being repeatedly mispronounced. She sent a remarkable signal on how important it is to master people’s names.

The effort for a correct name pronunciation demonstrates the sense of belonging. “In this place we make the effort, we say your name as you know it”. Your name may be different equally to the many other differences we want to leverage and not change it.

I would like to share my 2 cents in all of that.


My name is João (pronounced: [ʒuˈɐ̃w̃], if that helps 🙃), and it’s essentially the Portuguese version of John. In Brazil and Portugal it is one of the most common names. Growing up in Brazil, I remember it being the most used “generic example name” teachers would use at school, something like: “João has three apples and two oranges”. And it’s only two syllables: jo — ão.

A simple 9-second video on Youtube of someone pronouncing João has over 160k views:

However, moving around the world hasn’t been easy on my name, it got butchered in many ways. Only after I started working abroad did I realise that hardly any of my colleagues could get the pronunciation right. Similar to millions of others in this situation, I faced the dilemma — should I change my name and make it easy for others? Should I call myself “Jo”, or “John”?

After answering these classic questions, many times: “Do you have any nicknames I can call you?”, “Do you have an English name?”, I realised: I don’t want to change my name. My childhood friends know me as João, as my grandparents and all my family do too. It is the name I want my new friends and people I meet to know me as. I’ve built my life image to that name, João is who I am.

I don’t really mind if you mispronounce my name for the first times we meet, considering that it could also be the first time you hear this name. In fact, I expect you won’t be able to pronounce it correctly. I recognise it is a difficult name to pronounce if English is your native language or you’re not familiar with the Portuguese nasal sound of the tilde (~).

Jennifer Gonzalez has enlightened me with some great definitions on the different types of mispronunciations in her article:

  • Fumble mumbler: someone that typically gets nervous when they meet you, they attempt, struggle and may giggle. And then settle in for some close approximation.
  • Arrogant mangler: Is normally completely oblivious of the fact they mispronounce your name. They will choose whatever and carry on with it. Perhaps giggle and say, ‘don’t know how to say that’, then move on.
  • Calibrator: they will listen, slow down and attempt. They may get it wrong, but they’ll keep asking how to pronounce it and trying until they get it right. They double check even if they think they got it right. That’s who you want to be.

At the same time as you get the manglers you get the improvers, people that make an effort to say it right. As I started to make new friends, I noticed they cared about saying it correctly, they would put in the effort, and they wanted feedback to know if they were improving.

Say my name

I’ve created a tool: saymyname.io. It’s a tool for people with the same struggle of wanting to keep their name but having it often mispronounced. You can send it to your friends and colleagues and it will give them a score on how close they are from your name’s perfect pronunciation. It’s a tool for Calibrators.

Works on major browsers (Chrome, Safari, Android Chrome and iOS Safari)

It indeed helped my friends to know if they were improving, and gave them a tool to practice before we meet. I knew they cared, they just needed a nudge to get better. Also, it triggered a sense of competition between them: “who says “João” better?“. And from time to time it became a great party, and even a drinking game!

Why should you care?

According to LinkedIn: “Correct pronunciation is not just a common courtesy — it’s an important part of making a good first impression and creating an inclusive workplace”.

My take on making it right

Be mindful. There are clear signs that can make it easier to identify if you’re mispronouncing someone’s name. Someone could give you facial expressions and visual cues that you’re not saying it quite right. If in doubt, assume you don’t know.

Be humble, just ask. It’s better to ask than continuously butcher it until you get the right “shape”. It’s also great to acknowledge you can’t pronounce it, but asking before attempting is usually a good practice. Even better is to come prepared with some idea of how to pronounce the names of your colleague/friend/acquaintance.

Use a tool. If you already know you’re saying it wrong, and just need a little help, there are plenty of tools out there to help you:

What to do if you’re the one with the name being mispronounced

  • Find new ways of explaining the phonetics of it and have your framework to teach. My one was:

  • The first part “Jo”, it’s like the french “Je”, but with an O in the end. For the second part: just do a nasal sound like a formula 1 car accelerating, now shorten the acceleration immediately. 🇫🇷J ➕ 🏎 ➕ 🎬

  • Correct people! You can’t expect people will know how to say it right at the first time. Sometimes it is up to you to step in and help them out.

You can keep your name

If you prefer an easier way for people to say your name, or would prefer to just go by something else, do it. It’s a fine approach.

I went for the option of teaching others and trying to bring awareness to people that they can change and they can get better, and that I care if you say my name right. My name is important. It’s João, it’s who I am. I want to belong, and my name has to come with me.

Get your own score for João: https://saymyname.io/cards/joaomartins