Column | Mar. 4
In the seventh grade, my communications teacher pronounced my name “Chutney.” Even with eight years’ retrospect, I don’t think he was being racist; I just think that he saw my name on the roster, the thick conglomeration of consonants up front and all 13 letters of my undulating surname, and froze up. My seventh grade communications teacher was a strange man. As we sat in silence and read every day during class, he would scrutinize a dictionary. Often, he’d be crying by the end of the hour. Moved to tears by the power of words, I think.
By October, he’d stopped calling me Chutney. I can only assume he finally came upon it in the dictionary.
Starbucks employees, so infamous for mishearing names that I’m pretty seriously convinced that they do it on purpose, have never once gotten my name right. I’ve gone through so many variations of names that sound like Shruthi — Yumi, Trudy, Shroomy — and even more that sound nothing like Shruthi — Tracey, Teresa, Chelsea — that I could easily compile an extensive Buzzfeed article called “32 Times Corporate Coffee Has Almost Given Me An Identity Crisis.”
In high school, every time a new teacher would call attendance, there would be a long pause right after DeCandia, Trisha. I knew it was a long pause dedicated to unraveling my name, so I would affirm that I was there and offer an easy tutorial (“It’s like Ruthie, with a Sh”), though I knew full well the teacher in question would pointedly avoid calling on me for at least two weeks.
Since I’ve come to college, I’ve grown to dread introducing myself. It always goes the same way: I say my name, I say it again as my roommates chuckle at the progression of the hallowed ritual, I say it a little slower, and finally the person I’m talking to either settles on their mispronunciation of choice (“Wait, you said Shaq, right?”) or awkwardly doesn’t address me for the rest of the day. This whole process is infinitely more painful if it’s occurring on a Thursday or Saturday night.
Worst of all, however, are the people who ask me if they can call me something else entirely. Something easier to say, something more western. Susie, maybe. Maybe Samantha? It happened a lot when I was younger, when I was selling Girl Scout cookies to a well-meaning soccer mom or giving my name for a restaurant reservation. For years I thought nothing of it — of course, call me whatever you want! Whatever’s easiest for you!
It took me a while to realize the difference between nicknames — which I love — and thorough rebranding. It’s completely disrespectful. It’s the equivalent of sitting someone down and saying: “look, I know it’ll probably take me 30 seconds to learn how to say your name, but I really just can’t be bothered.”
My name is fairly phonetic and pretty easy to pronounce if you try, but regardless of how complicated the name — however many consecutive vowels or fancy diacritical marks — making the effort to get someone’s name right should be a basic form of common courtesy. Difficult names tend to be ethnic, and botching a name steeped in culture and history can be offensive on an entirely different level. And asking to call that person something else strips her of her identity altogether.
The media got into a lot of trouble for this at last year’s Oscars. Reporters flocked to Quvenzhané Wallis, the 10-year-old actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” However, instead of taking the time (all of three minutes, probably) to learn her name, as their jobs would require them to do, they asked her if they could call her “Little Q” or “Annie.” It’s understandable to be daunted by a name with 10 letters, a Q and an accent, and even more understandable to ask her to pronounce it for them so they can get a better hang of it, but to not even bother is rude. The thing is, glossing over ethnic names has become so commonplace in society that the reporters didn’t seem to think twice about it. If something is too foreign-sounding, change it. Whitewashing is a vast topic on its own, but nine times out of 10, that’s where the problem with renaming finds root.
Names are so important, which is why people change names they don’t like and spend so much time thinking of what names they’ll give their kids. If it’ll take 30 seconds more to pay attention and get a name right, there’s no reason not to.
Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.