What is in a Name?

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My Name is My Identity

By Karen Stewart, BSRT(R)CV, CRA

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” William Shakespeare uses this line in Romeo and Juliet to imply that the names are irrelevant. With this statement I disagree completely.  A name is everything.  As a member of the DEI committee for the AHRA, I started to reflect on DEI and what it means to me as a woman, mother, daughter, sister, patient and Polish-American.  Growing up with the last name of Wyszynski (va-shin-ski), I never thought of diversity or as being different, I was just Karen with a hard Polish last name.  Before I was married, I worked as a Radiology Technologist in several hospitals.  Each place I worked, no one really tried to learn how to pronounce my last name.  I was given nicknames such as Wiz or Karen W.  I remember distinctly one time when I was needed emergently, and I was overhead paged in the hospital.  The operator paged me as “Karen W.”  which could have led to confusion and a delay in care.  When I returned to the department I discussed it with your supervisor afterward but what she didn’t understand or try to understand is that I was embarrassed.  My name and my heritage meant a lot to me, but because no one could pronounce my name, I accepted the names that they gave me and never tried to correct them I just went with the flow.  But what it really did was play with my head.  It made me feel that I was not worthy or as good as those who had easy-to-pronounce names.  Subconsciously, it wore on me.  When I took a new job 7 months before I was getting married, I had them put my username and email address in my (future) married name.  No one at my new job knew who Karen Wyszynski was, they only knew me as Karen Stewart.  I told no one in my family that I had done this, which backfired when my mom called my work looking for Karen Wyszynski and was told that no one by that name worked there.

Our name is a part of our identity, a part of our foundation that helps us to connect with others.  Some names are part of our culture or reflect a story in a person’s life.  Others are given names that may reflect a tradition or how their parents came up with their name.  Individuals have a right to be addressed by their correct name and should expect that others want to learn how to pronounce their name as well.  When individuals do not try to correctly pronounce or butcher an individual’s name, they are sending a message that the individual is not valued or maybe not as important as other coworkers.   Failing to attempt to pronounce an individual’s name is disrespectful and a form of microaggression.  This microaggression, whether intentional or unintentional, can cause the person to feel excluded or not worthy.  It’s probable that this is a mistake; however, if a person continually makes the same mistake with no regard to another person’s feelings, it needs to be corrected.

In healthcare we come across many names that are unusual or difficult to pronounce amongst staff and in our patient populations.  We must find a way to make these individuals feel respected and valued by trying to pronounce their name and then asking for help with mispronunciations.  We need to apologize for our mistakes and ask for assistance in the proper pronunciation.  Taking a minute to get it right will demonstrate that we care and have respect for the person we are interacting with.  In the workplace it makes individuals feel inclusive and appreciated and helps with employee retention and satisfaction. People with challenging pronunciations could help by including a phonetic pronunciation in their signature blocks, just as many people now include preferred pronouns. This will let everyone know that they want to be called their given name and it relieves the awkwardness that can arise when speaking to the person for the first time.

Creating a more inclusive environment by learning to pronounce an individual’s name is a small step that everyone can engage in.  It takes only a minute or two to show someone that you care and respect them by asking them if you pronounced their name correctly and if you didn’t to have them pronounce it for you and for you to repeat it correctly.  A little kindness goes a long way in our journey for a more diverse and equitable work environment.

If you have any comments, questions or suggestions for the DEI committee, please reach out to me at karen.stewart@pennmedicine.upenn.edu.


Karen is a Clinical Analyst, at Princeton Health Care System, and currently serves as the Chair of the AHRA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. 


One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspectives on this most important topic. This is a timely and appropriate call to action for all of us to take the extra steps necessary to truly connect with each other and our patients in the most basic way — our names. Making people feel valued and as comfortable as possible being themselves is key to developing stronger relationships of trust and enhancing staff engagement and overall patient experiences.

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