What’s in a Name?

Well, according to Juliet of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet not much. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet attempts to convince Romeo that a name is simply a conventional standard with no real meaning behind it. Yet, their familial names are so important to their families that Romeo and Juliet choose death rather than live apart.

I remember for years that I hyphenated my last name not taking account that my husband’s last name started with a D so I had the initials VD for a drastically long time. From a marketing perspective, I don’t recommend having the initials of an acronym of a sexually transmitted disease. When I started my company, t Works, I decided to drop the hyphen and use my maiden name. Though many people in Canada and the US panic when they see my last name and have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it; it’s very common in India. In fact, so common, that it has multiple spellings.

Many new immigrants change their names upon arrival to the US and Canada to help assist with job search as, statistically speaking, those with ethnic sounding names will be interviewed at lesser rates than those with non-ethnic sounding names. Researchers from Ryerson and the University of Toronto found that Canadian job seekers with Asian names are 20-40% less likely to receive a call back because of their name. Yet, a name is tied to our identity. It’s tied to whom we are; where we came from and ultimately where we wish to go. It shouldn’t simply be a means to a job. Immigrants often change their names to more Anglo names such as Kevin, Paul and Cecilia. Changing a name makes it easier for Canadians and Americans to pronounce as it’s easier….for Canadians and Americans. Yet, is it easy for an immigrant to change their identity? To not embrace what their parents named them at birth? Often immigrants feel like they don’t truly belong anywhere- like they are stuck or in limbo in two worlds- belonging to neither. Yet, a sense of belonging is so important as it drives our purpose and meaning.

Many immigrants have names that meant something in their Mother tongue. Jiawen means ‘good or quiet’ in Mandarin. The Sicilian name, Calogero, means ‘good elder’ originating from Greek origin. Hang, in Mandarin, means guidance. Asha, in Malayalam (my own parent’s Mother tongue) means Hope and what we were going to name my second child if we had a daughter (though my son, Alec, went through a stage when he was a toddler where he had such long, luscious curls that we put his hair in a ponytail like Pebbles from the Flintstones and called him Asha for a brief moment in our family’s history; my Mother was devastated when we eventually cut his hair). Though when my husband and I chose Asha we chose it for it’s significance, tie to my own cultural heritage and, quite frankly, because we inherently knew it was easy to pronounce in North America as we didn’t want our child missing out on potential opportunities due to name bias or some might argue discrimination.

There are strategies that new immigrants or even those that were born in N. America yet have ethnic sounding names can do to ensure they mitigate challenges that some have with pronunciation.

LinkedIn Phonetic Feature

LinkedIn has a phonetic feature option that I highly recommend all professionals use. This way, anyone looking at your profile can learn how to pronounce a name properly regardless of cultural origin. Most North Americans want to pronounce names (both first and surnames) properly but understandably don’t know how to.

Adding a phonetic pronunciation to resumes, Linked profiles as well as signature lines can be helpful as well.

Sounds like

The ‘sounds like’ strategy is a strategy I adopted from my older brother, an actor, that I use when an MC or moderator learns how to pronounce my last name of Varughese. I say, it sounds like Portuguese. It works like a charm every time. My brother’s first name is Sugith which is very close to an Indian name- Sujit. Though I was born in Canada he was born in India. His name was derived from my creative parents whose names were George and Susan. Hence, they created Sugith which symbolized Sue with George.

Wrong Pronunciation

If someone pronounces your name wrong and it is someone you wish to create an authentic relationship with then simply pronounce your name much more slowly. Accents can be hard for most to understand yet what I advise most new immigrants is to simply slow down their speech. The accent is much less discernable. The positive of this is that the other individual will naturally slow down their speech which might make them easier to understand as well. If a new immigrant is part of your team then simply ask them to pronounce their name and slowly repeat it back. Most immigrants appreciate that you try rather than continually mispronounce a name or not say their name.


Relationships are a two way street. Creating a sense of belonging should be important to everyone- not just the new immigrant- especially within workplaces. If well over 22% of North America’s population is foreign-born then members of society can learn how to pronounce names- even asking those to repeat spellings no different than how we repeat phone numbers. Admittedly, I often receive LinkedIn requests and always respond back with a personalized message. I always take my time to ensure I have the spelling of someone’s name correct. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, it’s unfamiliar to me. However, it is important to the relationship that we have begun to build.

So what’s truly in a name? They are a tie to our cultural connections. A name is an integral part of our identity, individuality, and independence. They are personal, meaningful and familial. Our name is a bridge to the relationships of our past and of our future.

Posted in

Tina Varughese