Names: respect, inclusion and belonging

"Hello, my name Is" sticker and pen on table

Diversity, equity and inclusion is not about just revising HR policies and processes to be more inclusive and equitable, it’s a lens that you need to view everything through. For product organizations it’s a key lens to look at the product and customer experience. 

I’ve been thinking about personal names and how those are a point of inclusion and belonging, or not. Names are personal, and for many of us, an important part of our identity.

How do you say your name? 

My name is Tara. In North America people often mispronounce it, less so in other parts of the world. My name is pronounced Tah-rah, not Terra. For the first 20 years of my life it was easier for me to not speak up when people mispronounced it. When I was in my early 20s I met a woman of colour at a conference who also had a name that was much less common than mine. She said that it was a basic sign of respect to say people’s names properly and that changed how I operate. These days I usually correct people, but I still do the mental arithmetic to calculate if the energy it takes to interject and then to manage people’s apologies is worth it. Our names tell a story and for many of us they’re an important part of who we are. 

The microaggressions I experience are tiny compared to BIPOC people with non-English names. I love this story from actor Uzo Aduba when she told her mom that she wanted to be called Zoe. Her mother replied “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

I recently learned that from 1940-80s the Canadian government “assigned Inuit numbered identification tags that they had to wear around their necks, mainly because white administrators couldn’t pronounce their names.” I have a visceral reaction at how disrespectful and dehumanizing it is to reduce people to numbers. 

Our names are important and saying them correctly is a basic level of respect. 

Joe Biden’s name sign

I’ve been following some of the conversations in Black Deaf communities about President Elect Joe Biden’s name sign. In Deaf culture people have name signs that represent them and people with close ties to the Deaf community or well known figures also given name signs by the Deaf individuals or community.

Here’s what Nakia Smith has to say:

She’s quoted in this LA Times article saying that this name sign looks like “a “C” sign used by members of the Crips gang in some American cities and could be dangerous for signers of color and embarrassing to the incoming administration.”

Names are important and have layers of meaning from our families, histories, cultures and communities. 

Names in databases

When I worked at Mozilla I documented the various places someone transitioning their gender at work would need to update their name and gender marker. There were so many systems: the HR Information System, LDAP logins, payroll system, benefits providers, the company we used to book travel’s system, Bugzilla, Github, and the internal staff directory and likely others that I’m forgetting. 

Doing this work I learned there were more than a few people who didn’t fit neatly in these systems, including: 

  • People who only have a first name
  • People with non-English characters in their names
  • People with non-English names who also have English names
  • People who get married and change their last name to their spouse’s last name
  • People who get married and change their last name to a hyphenated name with their spouse’s last name
  • People who get divorced and change their name back
  • People who change their first name to something that fits them better
  • People with very short names
  • People with very long names

Patrick McKenzie’s Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names is the most comprehensive list of assumptions about names that I’ve read. If you’re designing anything that will include people’s names, this is required reading. Emma Humphries’ Adventures in Renaming is also a useful resource.

This study by R. Ruiz-Pérez, E. Delgado López-Cózar, E. Jiménez-Contreras in the Journal of Medical Library Association looked at how “Spanish names are handled by national and international databases and to identify mistakes that can undermine the usefulness of these databases for locating and retrieving works by Spanish authors”. This study listed 17 name format variations with these two being the most common: 

  • First name first surname second surname
  • First name middle name first surname second surname

I can imagine how this would impact search, retrieval and therefore how often the work is cited, which could in turn impact prestige through tenure, promotion and grants. 

screenshot of the original article in Business Insider with Vernā's name spelled correctly
original article in Business Insider
screenshot from Gale Academic Onefile about "Vern Myers"
article in Gale Academic Onefile

In Gale Academic Onefile, Vernā Myers, the VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, name is spelled incorrectly. I’m assuming that the data ingest from Business Insider choked on the macron over the “a” at the end of her first name. Changing Verna to Vern makes it seem like the VP is male. Also, if I was searching for articles that mention Vernā Myers, this one wouldn’t come up. 

Just like with in person interactions, how we design databases to include (or exclude) people’s names is about respect and impacts the feeling of belonging (or not) and who can be found (or not). 

Names in products

The way names show up in products and services can be a point of inclusion and belonging. This summer Mastercard launched True Name:

For many in the LGBTQIA+ community, the name on their credit, debit or prepaid card does not reflect their true identity.

That’s why we’re working with partners to bring products to market that will allow for chosen names to appear on the front of cards, helping ease a major pain point for the transgender and nonbinary communities.

It’s a big deal having a credit card or debit card that matches your gender presentation and who you are. This video tells some of those stories:

This goes beyond corporate platitudes during pride month. This is something concrete that Mastercard did to make their products more inclusive of trans and non-binary people and make it a little easier for trans and non-binary people to buy things. 

This summer LinkedIn added a feature that allows you to record your name. In October Greenhouse added the Say My Name feature, where candidates can “pre-record the correct pronunciation of their names when recruiters request their interview schedule availability through Greenhouse”.

I’d love to learn about other product examples where the people building the product put specific care and attention on getting people’s names right. 

Thank you

Thank you to Cara Hall and Carolyn Arthur for feedback and editing help.

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