MARIO! Mario!” The barista is calling out a coffee order. I’m half asleep so it doesn’t register. “Mario? Skinny flat white”. It dawns on me then – he means me. It’s my coffee order!
OMG. How embarrassing. I walk over; he takes a look at me and then at the coffee and realises their cashier has totally butchered my name. He apologises. I politely say thank you, pick up my coffee, my ego off the ground, and walk off.
“It’s OK,” I think to myself. I’m used to it. Worse still was the time I ordered my coffee using the Hey You app which clearly displays my full name – correct spelling and all – and the considerate barista thought he’d Anglicise my name for me – it had “Mary” written on the cup.
Do you remember that feeling as you’re sitting in roll call at school and your teacher is yelling out a list of each of the students’ names, and then there’s that infamous pause and you just know that they are about to butcher yours?
Are you nodding? Or maybe you’re like, “nope I can’t relate.” That means you probably have a pronounceable name – by Western standards anyway.
My name, you see, is Mariam Veiszadeh. No not, Miriam (I get that A LOT), not Maria, not Mary, definitely not Mario, but MAAARIAM. As for my surname, oh boy – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer would have no hope in hell trying to utter it, ever.
It’s Veiszadeh. Not Visydeh, Versace, Veh-veh-veh –?
Look, I get it. It’s not easy – not even by ethnic standards. (I can say that because I’m ethnic.)
But having a name like mine does have its perks. You never have to worry about someone else having the same Gmail address or Instagram handle. As a work colleague once pointed out to me, “your name is unusual enough for me to be able to easily find you in the directory”. (PS: Please don’t say that to people, especially ones you’ve just met).
But yeah, being different ain’t always cool. Just ask Emma Alberici, Neel Kolhatkar, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Magda Szubanski or Gladys Berejiklian about how many times well-intentioned people have butchered their names before they finally got it.
These are the brave folks who persevered and didn’t give in to the urge to change their names or Anglicise them – and now, after years of practice, we just know how to say their names.
The thing is not everyone who changes, shortens or Anglicises their names is doing it because their names are unpronounceable. Some are doing to avoid or reduce discrimination.
“Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing as discrimination,” I hear you say! Well, an ANU 2009 study found that someone with a Chinese-sounding name typically must submit 68 per cent more applications than a person with an Anglo-sounding name to get the same amount of call backs and therefore land a job interview.
And if you’re Middle Eastern, not only are you more likely to be randomly selected for a bomb test at the airport, but to get the same number of interviews as a job applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, you must submit 64 per cent more applications. An Indigenous applicant 35 per cent more, and an Italian applicant 12 per cent more applications.
With odds like that, it is entirely understandable why some feel the need to go from Ming to May or from Mohammed to Michael because you just can’t beat unconscious (or in some cases conscious) bias in the recruitment process.
The fact that people from the above named ethnic groups are less likely to advance to leadership positions once they make it through the recruitment process is a topic that we will have to leave for another day. Needless to say if you don’t see folks with unpronounceable names in the top ranks of society, there’s even less incentive to retain the names given to you at birth.
But what if your parents named you North West – surely you should be able to change that when you’re older, I hear you say? Hey, this is a judgment-free zone.
It’s a sad reality that on the top of the usual anxieties that new parents battle with, some have the added problem of having to worry about their name selections – trying to settle on names that will less likely result in bullying and discrimination in the playground and beyond.
In an era where parents try to be different by naming their child a variant of popular names like Sophia (who knew that Sophia could be spelt at least 10 different ways?) – let’s truly embrace difference and let us encourage others to be proud of their identities.
Most importantly, let us become conscious of the role each of us play in society in ensuring that we don’t merely tolerate difference, be in it in name or otherwise, but rather, we celebrate it.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 June 2917 http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/opinion/the-beauty-of-unpronounceable-names-is-that-we-all-eventually-learn-them-20170614-gwqzs6.html