As a child, I was forced to come up with my own pronunciation for my name. I quickly realised that none of my white friends could say my name the way my Indian family did (“Ra-dhee-ka” with a “dh” sound), so I anglicised my name to sound like “radical” minus the “L”: “Ra-di-ka.”
But, over the years, people continually say it wrong. I’ve answered to everything from “Rahr-dika” to “Radeeeka”. Most of the time, I don’t mind. If it’s the first time someone is encountering the name, it makes sense they’ll struggle. What really bothers me is when I repeatedly tell someone how to correctly pronounce my name – and they ignore me completely.
That’s why I was so pleased to see two Australian TV hosts going out of their way to correctly pronounce the names of footballers from across the globe during their World Cup coverage. SBS TV presenters Lucy Zelic and Craig Foster made an extra effort to say all the names correctly – because, as Zelic said in an emotional speech: "You're not pronouncing it for anybody other than the nation that you're covering, and out of respect to them, you're pronouncing it for them.
“So [it means a lot] when I have had Colombians write to me and say 'I've been living in Australia for 37 years, and constantly having my name mispronounced has always been a difficulty for me. To have it pronounced correctly is really quite touching.'”
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed, and many took to Twitter to complain that the presenters were “over-pronouncing” the names and putting on accents. But many more (most of whom had non-white names) thanked the presenters’ for “educating the ignorant, and not accepting ignorance”.
I once met a guy at a party who asked for my number at the end but had obviously forgotten my name. ‘Um, Rachel?’ he asked. ‘Sorry, yours is just really complicated’
“I stopped pronouncing my name correctly as a kid in a very Anglo Aussie primary school in the 80s,” wrote one. “It was just easier, fewer questions. Wish I didn't – maybe I would've been a little braver if I saw this.”
What these presenters are doing is amazing, but it’s a shame that it is so unusual. I regularly appear on TV and radio shows as a columnist and journalist and, 95% of the time, presenters pronounce my name wrong. Even when I specifically tell the producers how to pronounce it and that the “H”s are all silent, I still find myself live on air being introduced as “Rad-heeee-ka Sang-hani”.
It even happens on mainstream TV news shows where I’m a regular. I once mentioned how much it bothered me to a white presenter off-air, and asked if she thought it was OK for me to correct presenters. “No,” she said. “It’s really hard for us to pronounce every name properly, and if you correct us on-air, it throws us off.”
I understand that, but, at the same time, to me it’s a presenters’ job to try to say the names properly – and not doing so is a complete lack of respect. Especially when I’ve already gone out of my way to anglicise my name so that it’s easier for a white person to say it.
But, of course, it isn’t just presenters who get it wrong. It’s happened to me in workplaces, in school and even on first dates. Once I’ve introduced myself, people often forget and either make up their own pronunciation of the name, try to mumble something that sounds a bit Indian (this is beyond mortifying for everyone) or just avoid saying it. I once met a guy at a party who asked for my number at the end but had obviously forgotten my name. “Um, Rachel?” he asked. “Sorry, yours is just really complicated.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re someone who struggles to pronounce some people’s names, then don’t keep on just getting it wrong or going down the “hey, you” road: ask them how to say it. Even if it’s the second time you’ve asked, most people will appreciate the fact you’re trying to get it right. And if you’re in a situation where you’re going to see them regularly – i.e. a new work colleague – it’s worth even just writing down the phonetic spelling of their name.
This might sound like a lot of work for something that doesn’t sound like that big a deal – and, indeed, it doesn’t compare to the racism that many non-white people face – but when someone keeps on saying your name wrong, it can be frustrating and upsetting. Getting someone’s name right is an important part of fostering a relationship with them, and getting it wrong suggests that, really, you just don’t care.