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Updated: October 11, 2021 outside the box

Advice: Getting names right

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
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Those who know me well might chuckle at the thought of me writing about the importance of names, because I’m not good with names; I don’t often remember them. I got this from my mother who also butchers names, and some days I wish it were proven hereditary, so I had an excuse.

I’ve been known to introduce myself with an apology about my deficiency with names, shortly after sharing my name and having someone else’s introduced to me, and then immediately forgetting their name. This was a pertinent challenge for me as a recruiter! This is my truth, but it’s not a good excuse for not doing better to learn names, remember them, and pronounce them correctly. Language matters and names are no different. It could be argued names are the most important words in language.

Kevin Breen, head of school at Worcester Academy, said the notion of being known is central to the idea of belonging, which we have set as one of our themes this year. At our opening convocation, my colleague, Madeline Surgenor Richards, upper school head, challenged students to know each other’s names and learn how to pronounce them correctly. When someone remembers our name and pronounces it correctly, we feel not only known, but respected and more important within the community. This makes a positive and lasting impression on students in schools and on employees in organizations, bolstering a sense of belonging for individuals who then feel more connected to the organization and its mission. Oppositely, the adverse happens when we don’t remember names.

Eight years ago, when I worked at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I had one very brief meet and greet with the interim past president, Philip Ryan, shortly after he took post on campus, in a moment when he was meeting many people at once. A week later, I was walking across the WPI quad from my office to the gym to play pick-up basketball on my lunch break, when I heard my name shouted from a distance. I couldn’t believe it, walking toward me from the opposite end of the quad, just to say a friendly hello was Mr. Ryan. I had been in multiple meetings with other executives over a span of years, who never learned my name. Bonnie is not a common name in this era, nor is it difficult to pronounce. In that passing moment when this gentleman remembered my name, it did make an impact, in fact so much so, my interaction with him weighed in on my decision to stay at the institution at a time of personal and professional transition.

Learning the name people want to be called is necessary as we build cultures elevating belonging. In order to better support the identities of all organizational members, we must understand multiple needs, one being the use of a preferred name (sometimes known as a chosen name, a nickname, or a name-in-use) is the use of a name different from a person’s legal name. For many reasons, someone may use a preferred or chosen name. While the most common may be to reflect gender identity, other reasons may be using a nickname, or going by an Americanized name. Using appropriate names signals a willingness to be inclusive to everyone and a commitment to individual authenticity. 

Following are three baseline tactics to help you learn people’s names:

1. Commit to it. When someone tells you their name, listen and learn it however you can. Make it a priority.

2. Practice. It is okay to say, “Your name is Kristine, right?” They will likely correct you if you get it wrong and will be flattered if you are right. Use the name every time you see that person.

3. For names you find challenging, ask for a pronunciation, and use the name they have given you. Write it down or learn it however works best for you.

Names are important for many reasons. One is they are most often connected to our identities, our culture and connection to a group, heritage or ethnicity, and to our individualism. We are named, and we have nicknames and chosen names, which are labels or identifiers of who we are. For most, one’s name is the most important word in the world. We should learn people’s names and say them correctly, because it matters.

Bonnie J. Walker is the director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 16 years. Contact her at

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