Workzone: Breaking down barriers

Diversity Matters

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Bob Rogers has 1,200 employees at Development Dimensions International, a Bridgeville-based management consulting firm.

Every year he gives awards to the cream of the crop, and every year he mangles a few names. It can't be helped. DDI has offices in 26 countries. Mr. Rogers, cosmopolitan as he may be, has trouble with 14-letter Thai names.

But the frequency of mangling has fallen since his assistant, Karen Gaetano, came up with the idea of recording DDI employees pronouncing their own names and compiling those files in an internal employee directory.

Now, Mr. Rogers studies the files, approximating a difficult name over and over before announcing it in public.

"Thai names, Indian and Polish and Russian [names] are the hardest," he said.

DDI launched the sound directory a few years ago, and Mr. Rogers, DDI's president, makes frequent use of it.

But not all DDI employees have recordings.

If he's meeting with someone new, Mr. Rogers asks for the pronunciation upfront.

And when all else fails, there are nicknames, he says. One employee simply goes by "Pink."

Difficult-to-pronounce names or those whose spelling isn't intuitive can be a barrier in business, both for the speaker and the namesake.

In 2011, researchers from Australia, Belgium and New York published the results of five studies confirming the "name-pronunciation effect" in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The paper concluded that people with "easy" names were simply more liked on first impression and might continue to enjoy an advantage because of that in professional settings.

"Names activate a reservoir of semantic information, which then informs judgment," the authors write. "Easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names."

Peggy Allen Heidish, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Intercultural Communication Center, often shocks foreign students when she says the students themselves are to blame for Americans' butchering of their names.

Many foreign students, jarred by frequent mispronunciations of their names, decide that Americans are hopeless and simply give up trying to correct them. When people ask if they're pronouncing a name correctly, the students shrug it off and saying something like "close enough" or "Ha ha, people in America cannot say my name."

That creates a barrier that could affect them professionally, she said. People may infer that a student is generally difficult to understand or not fluent in English.

"There are a lot of cultural differences on [names]," Ms. Allen Heidish said. "One of the things we realized, finally, is a lot of our students come from countries where there is a finite number of names."

So when they blurt out theirs, they expect people to recognize it from a standardized list.

Ms. Allen Heidish encourages foreign students, and Americans with unconventional names, to spell them out slowly, then pronounce their names and, if necessary, offer a common word that rhymes or sounds like their names.

For people nervous about pronouncing an uncommon name, Ms. Allen Heidish says the fear is counterproductive. Chances are good that people with hard-to-pronounce names have had to listen to many verbal travesties.

"Don't expect that you will say the name exactly as a native speaker of that language does," she said. But don't let that stop you from trying.

"People in the business world, I think if they worry too much about trying to pronounce it, you're simply not going to be able to," she said. "I think the best thing to do is to explicitly address the issue."

At UPMC's central contact center, which handles about 8,000 calls daily, operators are instructed to confront the name issue right away, according to senior director Diane Zilko.

"First of all, we take a shot at it and we apologize upfront if we're mispronouncing it," she said.

The call center handles mostly incoming calls, where operators are told to ask for the spelling of a name and immediately repeat it back, asking for correction.

"Names are important to people. We tell them, don't be afraid to ask someone to pronounce their name," she said.

"And the big thing is, we encourage them to say it back [right away]," because the more time that passes between hearing and saying, the more paralyzing the doubt will become."


Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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