To be honest, I’ve lived most of my life in a cultural bubble. It’s really only in the last 20 years that I’ve been exposed to learning about other cultures—primarily from my students and clients. And I’m being called to do this more and more as I train in global organizations.
There was one student in a recent training whose name was spelled differently than I was used to, so I kept mispronouncing her name. Thankfully, and early on, she interrupted me. “Val, we’re going to be spending a lot of time together,” she said, “And it’s really important that you learn how to say my name.”
I had her write it out for me phonetically, and I now have that on a sticky note so it’s in front of me every time she’s there. Because I’ve got to get that name right.
It’s a cultural basic—being able to pronounce someone’s name correctly is the most fundamental sign of respect. I highly recommend checking out what Anparasan Sivakumaran (also known as Anpu) has to say on this topic. His resource, “How to respect my ethnic name,” went viral on social media, and for good reason.
Going forward, I’ll raise this topic in my opening conversations with students and clients. I’ll say something like this:
“It’s really important that you know I’m correctable. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I’m not saying your name right, or if I need to adapt my teaching or coaching style to work better for you.”
In my internal coaching book and the chapter about cultural considerations, I shared the suggestion that you work with a translator or other language and culture expert before visiting a new country.
And, it’s important to keep in mind that as much as you prepare for meeting and working with people from different cultures, nothing is as important as being willing to listen to, learn from, and adapt to each individual you meet. Because no one is a textbook version of cultural norms. Each of us is a unique blend of influences, experiences, and preferences.
As a coach and a leader, I was really glad this student felt like she could stop me and express how important this was to her, and how important it should also be to me. She felt safe to do that, and I’m not sure if that’s always the case.
Are you approachable on matters of culture? Are you correctable, and willing to learn?
Excellent observation, and good advice, Val.