12.3.08

Best Practice - Names

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

- Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Really? Not to dis the Bard, but I wonder if anyone ever asked the rose how it feels about that.

Names are the only UID we use on a daily basis, from cradle to grave. Though we seldom choose them ourselves, they're uniquely personal, and deeply interwoven with personal identity. That's what makes the taunts of school-yard bullies so tough to bear. (Editorial Note - I speak from a point of some experience, since "Hickman" lends itself well to a variety of jeers and jabs that I shouldn't get into on a G-Rated blog.)

Suffice to say that few people enjoy jokes about their names.

And yet, it's shocking the number of times I've heard managers and staff in America mock their global peers because of "funny names."

I've heard seasoned managers, people who certainly know better, refer to Chinese members of their remote team as "Ping Pang Pong." I've heard staff engineers who I thought to be decent people refer to their peers in India as "Walawala Washington" instead of "Wadhwani."

I shouldn't even have to point it out, but if you work with someone from a different culture, their name will sound different to you. It might have a lot of consonants, or it might have a lot of vowels, and you might even have trouble making the sounds to pronounce the name correctly. That does not mean you get to make fun of other people's names!

I think it's a lot easier to fall into this trap of mocking people's names when you don't see them face to face. I can't imagine the manager I referenced above - the one who called a Chinese engineer "Ping Pang Pong" ever doing that to one of the Chinese-American engineers who worked in the same office as us. It just would never happen.

But let's think about what would happen if it did: The engineer who had just been mocked would hopefully take the issue to Human Resources. Why? Because it illustrates a basic dehumanizing prejudice, and it creates a hostile work place. Creating a hostile workplace is illegal in America, and the manager in question would hopefully get a warning, and a second chance to never do that again.

I think this name-mocking behavior happens more frequently with offshore contractors, because for starters they are in a subordinate position, as vendors. Secondly, they're remote, and it's easier to mock someone who might not walk around the corner and overhear you.

If you're trying to create a global team, or to create a sense of trust and mutual respect between peers from different parts of the world, or different cultures, you can not let this name-mocking happen, never not once.

Again, to end this Best Practice note with some actionable advice:
  • Never mock your peers or subordinates because of their names. Pick something else to make fun of, like their bad code, their lazy work habits, or their haircuts.
  • Understand that mockery around cultural differences creates a divisive, hostile work environment.
  • Remember that "our" names might sound just as funny to someone in China, India or Russia.
  • Understand that it's acceptable to admit that you have trouble pronouncing names. I've seen very senior executives apologize in advance for not correctly pronouncing names like "Gillenhaal" and "Krzyzewski." People generally don't mind having their last names butchered in these situations, because the Execs are understanding and apologetic, they aren't doing it on purpose, and it the error isn't a point of mockery.
  • Ask your peers and subordinates to tell you how they pronounce their names.
  • Don't be defensive if and when they correct you.
  • Look at this web site - inogolo - A website about not butchering names - for pronunciation clues. This site is filled with a lot of Anglo-Saxon and European words and names, but is slowly filling up with a planet's worth of pronunciation clues.
  • Remember the psychology behind mockery -- It dehumanizes people, and makes them "other" and "different". That's antithetic to "Us" thinking, and it destroys teams.

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