Mi scusi. I’d like to start over.
A rose likely transcends the limitations of its name. Me, not so much.
It was the third week of April. I was about to begin a brand new chapter in my professional life in a new and hithertofore unknown city—the Bronx, NY, no less! — some 8,000-odd miles away from my home, surrounded by unfamiliar faces. I fought my trepidations as I walked into an office room full of strangers and, finding my voice, spoke out to no one in particular:
“Hi! Good morning. I am the new postdoctoral fellow joining the lab of Dr. Liise-anne Pirofski. I was instructed to come by this office to complete the new hire administrative formalities…?”
Several faces from behind wooden desks and counters looked up. Directly ahead in my line of sight, a friendly face with kind eyes and salt-and-pepper hair broke into a smile and said, “Hi! Come right over here, honey!” beckoning me to the counter. “Liise-anne told us to expect you this morning.”
Having never been honey-ed by a complete stranger before, I was bemused — chalk it up to my first culture shock — but took it in my stride. The lady’s voice seemed genuinely welcoming. In fact, by now I noticed there were several women behind the counter, all smiling encouragingly.
Now at more ease, I approached smiling lady #1. “Have you brought the letter we sent and the immigration documents with you?” she asked. I nodded in assent. “Phyllis” — she gestured at smiling lady #2 behind the desk — “will help you complete the paperwork and get settled. Welcome to Einstein!”
“Thank you!” I said with feeling as I handed over to Phyllis a pink piece of paper — an immigration document called IAP66 (that has long since been replaced by other documents) — along with other documents on regular white paper and my passport containing the visa.
“Let me see,” said Phyllis, peering at the papers, “you spell your first name K-A-U-S-I-K and last name D-A-T-T-A, is that correct?” I nodded.
“How do you pronounce your first name? Ka… Koozeek? Or, is it Koozak? Am I saying it right?” Asked Phyllis in earnest. “Yes, it’s all right!” I responded generously. “It doesn’t matter as long as you know who I am.”
Central in importance, the paragraph right above may be considered the nut graf to this narrative. But its true significance cannot remain circumscribed within the confines of that space. The generosity I alluded to was likely engendered by the earnest desire to make friends quickly, be accepted amongst strangers I hardly had anything in common with, and not mark my career’s first day with an inharmonious confrontation. In retrospect, I was wrong; I should have gently corrected Phyllis and given her the correct pronunciation of my name: ko-u (or at least, “caw”) followed by shik, pronounced exactly like Schick, the razor brand, or like French chic, ooh la la.
I love that entire Italian American contingent of secretaries and administrative assistants who used to work in the departmental office. This is from nearly two decades ago, but I dearly miss Jo, Phyllis, Rosa, Lucy, and others. They were good people, kind and loving, always helpful and generous in spirit, never short of a good word or two whenever any of us would stop by the office for any reason. They ably supported our research activities from behind the scenes. But remembering those good times enhances my regret: I probably did them and myself a disservice by not presenting them with the correct information.
Does this feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Am I overthinking — or rather overperceiving — a slight that even I know was not intentional? “No,” I can now say, especially when I have the benefit of a 20/20 hindsight.
People’s names are important to them, often tied to their ethnic identities and familial heritages. Deliberate and/or persistent mispronunciation of an individual is not merely discourteous, but hurtful too—especially if said individual belongs to a non-White, marginalized community — and in more ways than one, as noted inclusion strategist and author Ruchika Tulshyan pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article in 2020. It is considered name-based microaggression, and the experience of facing it at some point or other is not at all uncommon to people of color either in the US or in the UK.
I am indeed glad that certain people of color in the limelight, who have their own platforms and pulpits, have started to push back on this practice. During an appearance at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Indian American comedian and actor Hasan Minhaj explained how he became Timothée Chalamet; it’s a delightfully hilarious segment, but the underlying pain AND the growing resistance to this hurtful practice are very real to many of us.
Within my academic bubble, I was (and still am) privileged to be surrounded by plenty people who distinguished themselves by making an effort to learn the pronunciation of a name in a language that was a priori unfamiliar to them. In my lab, I had American friends and colleagues whose heritage and/or ancestry spanned from Israel, Ecuador, Spain, Poland, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Italy, Iran, Germany, to Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. Without exception, they all endeavored to learn and pronounce my name correctly, as did I for theirs. (Even though I am always “D-A-T-T-A” at Starbucks.)
If I had access to a time machine or a TARDIS, I would make a short trip to that fateful April day, sit in front of Phyllis, and say, “Pardon me. May I start over? My name is pronounced as…”
Even though I have always thought of that day and that moment in a “funny = peculiar” sense, it is not bereft of a “funny = ha-ha!” sense at a sublime level. Once I was established as a potential Koozak, someone else in the office elevated it to the next level by calling me Kowski. Apparently, the transition was the easiest thing since I worked in the laboratory of Dr. Pirofski, a Jewish physician scientist whose ancestors came from Poland.
I remember rolling my eyes so hard that I almost saw the back of my skull. But ever since I recounted this story to my spouse—no stranger to her own stories of name-based misadventures — and a French Canadian physician friend of mine over dinner, both have taken a great deal of joy in re-christening me Koozakowski, melting into squeals of laughter every time they’d utter it.
Well, some people are happy with that appellation, I guess. Hmph.
- Tulshyan, R. “If You Don’t Know How to Say Someone’s Name, Just Ask.” Harvard Business Review (January 9, 2020). https://hbr.org/2020/01/if-you-dont-know-how-to-say-someones-name-just-ask [Last Accessed January 12, 2022]
- Minhaj, H. (@HasanMinhaj). “What’s my name? Timothée Chalamet.” Twitter, April 4, 2019. https://twitter.com/hasanminhaj/status/1113952740596768771
- Roy, K., Ali, Z., Kumar, M. “The racist practice of mispronouncing names.” KUOW (March 21, 2019). https://www.kuow.org/stories/a-rose-by-any-other-name-would-not-be-me [Last Accessed January 12, 2022]
- Adil, Z.S. “Name mispronunciations leave lasting impact on individuals.” The Standard (June 10, 2021). https://standard.asl.org/18485/features/name-pronunciations-leave-lasting-impact-on-individuals/ [Last Accessed January 12, 2022]
- Nathoo, Z. “Why getting a name right matters.” BBC Equality Matters (January 11, 2021). https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210108-the-signals-we-send-when-we-get-names-wrong [Last Accessed January 12, 2022]
- Torres-Mackie, N. “Understanding Name-based Microaggressions.” Psychology Today (September 29, 2019). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/underdog-psychology/201909/understanding-name-based-microaggressions [Last Accessed January 12, 2022]