The British journalist Sangita Myska recently produced a programme about British attitudes to “foreign” names, based on her own experiences and those of other prominent Brits who can trace their roots to other cultures.

The inability of many of us to cope with these less common names can make even the most straight forward of tasks a challenge, and in the programme there are recordings of attempts she makes to book a table at different restaurants.  “Did you say Francesca?” being one response to her name.  Whilst it is understandable that anyone may have difficulty in pronouncing or understanding a name of word that they have never encountered before, it is the accompanying attitude that concerns.  A name is part of our identity and something to be treated with respect surely, yet the attitude often seems to be that “It’s your fault for having a difficult name.”

And then there are the prejudices that names can trigger.  An engineering company in Birmingham is run by a Richard Brown.  Nothing out of the ordinary there, until you discover that Richard is actually Shahid Iqbal, a Muslim who found that applying for jobs in his real name led rejections, yet doors were opened to the same applicant when he adopted a more Anglicised approach.  He continues to use Richard Brown now when approaching new clients as it gets him past initial barriers to the point where he can meet clients and promote his company.

While he is happy to take this approach, many others feel very uncomfortable at having to “abandon” their identity to make it easier for the ignorant.  I’m not sure which is the answer.  Over the last decade I have worked with hundreds of overseas students, many from South East Asia, who find it easier to adopt Western Names when in this country rather than put up with the mangled consonants that result from our attempts to pronounce their Chinese, Vietnamese or Malaysian equivalents.

I feel bad at not taking the time to correct this, but in a room of 10 students with tight timescales to work to I would quickly find myself behind schedule if I learnt every name with its correct pronunciation, only to have to begin again later in the day when we change the team compositions.  So when these students arrive armed with names like Winnie, Eric, Tim, Celia, Tommy and so on I’m happy to use them.  Interesting that so many of the names chosen, although very traditional, would probably not be used very often by English speakers today.

Today’s portrait is of one of my colleagues who has also delivered this training for a number of years and whose name is Janet.  At least that’s what I’ve always called her…

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2 thoughts on “Nominally British?

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