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I'll Never Forget What's-His-Name

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Learning, remembering, and properly pronouncing other peoples' names is more than just good manners; it's good business and good citizenship.

My name is Craig. But I'll answer to Greg. Most Gregs I know answer to Craig. Of course we are not alone: there's Eva and Ava, Bill and Bob, Jeff and John, Kristin and Kirsten, Ari and Avi, and many more. I can't complain. I often confuse and occasionally mangle others' names. Names are not my strong suit.

My purpose is not to engage in anthroponymy, the study of personal names. It's simply to remind you that learning, remembering and properly pronouncing other peoples' names is more than just good manners; it's good business and good citizenship. What's in a name? Everything!

Every Toastmaster, indeed every person you meet in life, wants to be seen as an individual, feel special and respected. When you refer to people by their preferred name, you are honoring them and showing respect. You're also seeing them as individuals. It's a good beginning to a relationship.

Over the years I've struggled to learn and remember names. The older I get the harder it becomes, in part because I continue to meet new people, sometimes an audience at a time!

Given our global marketplace we are likely to meet customers from China, Israel, Nigeria and Germany, Argentina and Arkansas. Names and pronunciations vary by country and region. Eugenia – pronounced "U-Gene-E-Ah" in the United States – sounds entirely different in the Southern hemisphere: "O-heee-Nee-Yah." Win points by pronouncing it her way! My secret: I spell it out phonetically whether on paper or in my mind. Seeing it this way helps me pronounce it properly.

In Toastmasters it took me a while to pronounce correctly the names of Osafran Okundaye and storyteller Orunamamu (pronounced O-Roon-a-Mah-moo). I've heard it mangled seven different ways. Ditto the name of Speechcraft participant John Eweglaben. It would have been so easy to pull an Ed McMahon, and simply introduce him by saying "Here's Johnny!" Instead I had John spell his name out for me phonetically and then practiced saying it repeatedly. Incidentally, it is pronounced "A-wig-LAY-Bin."

I accidentally insulted my Toastmasters club colleague from Louisiana, Mademoiselle Carolyn Millet (pronounced Meee-Aye), by presuming her last name was pronounced like the grain. That's not Southern hospitality!

Employ the following tips to track names and the vital details that accompany them:

According to the mingling maven herself, author Susan RoAne, "if you have trouble remembering names, understand that others have forgotten yours. Never, ever ask, "Do you remember me?"

The author of the bestselling books How to Work A Room and How To Create Your Own Luck: The "You Never Know" Approach, RoAne recommends that we simply "put out our hand, smile and re-introduce ourself. Ninety percent of the people will respond in kind and no one is playing the memory game. For the 10 percent who don't ask, tell the truth: "It's been one of those days...I can't even remember my name."

And when the shoe is on the other foot, and your name is forgotten or mispronounced, don't get angry or feel victimized. Our past international president, Dilip Abayasekara, Ph.D., DTM, has experienced the ups and downs of having a distinctive name. Dilip, a Sri Lankan whose last name means "leader without fear," knows his name is difficult for a first-timer to pronounce. He offers a pronunciation guide, relating his name's pronunciation to words people already know: Dilip sounds like Philip; the first three syllables of Abayasekara mimic the first three letters in Spanish or French: Ah – Bay – Say, to which one can add Kuh – Ruh. It works!

Of course, if the person in question offers you a nickname, you are welcome to use it. Many people have trouble pronouncing (and spelling) the name of the longtime Duke University men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (give yourself two points if you pronounced it "Shuh-SHEV-ski"). Many players and fans alike eschew the Polish pronunciation and simply call him by the alliterative "Coach K." 

One challenge occurs in environments when more than one person has the same name. In such cases nicknames may be the answer. One person may prefer Michael, another Mike and a third might even prefer Mikey. What is needed is mutual assent. Assigning a nickname without a person's permission can be insulting. Get a person's buy-in. Remember, their identity is at play. Accede to their wishes whenever possible; what's humorous to you may be insulting to the person in question.

When Distinguished Toastmaster Keith Ostergard, Toastmasters Vice-Chair of Training in the People's Republic of China, told me that companies often have so many employees with the same name it becomes problematic:

"In China it is very common to meet or work with people who have the same name – both surname and given name. Wang is one of the most common Chinese names. Once we had six people in a department of 100 with the name Wang Chen. In order to keep them straight, they all agreed to let me number them: Wang Chen 1, Wang Chen 2, etc.." That worked well until one left the company. They all wanted to change their numbers!"

What's in a name? Gold. Learning, using and properly pronouncing strangers' names is a great first step to building solid relationships based on trust, respect and admiration. Win the name game!

By Craig_Herrison

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