Use people’s preferred name

Twice in the last few months, two middle-age or older men who know me only in the context of Heat have addressed me as Heather. Both went a bit out of their way to ensure I’d notice they called me Heather and not Heat.

I think it’s weird.

I’ve been told explicitly—also by middle-aged or older men—“but Heather is such a pretty name!”

It’s not my job to be pretty for you.

There are lots of reasons people might call others by the wrong name.

Power play is one of them. What about the others?

Maybe the person’s name changed recently, and it slipped out of habit. Whether they got married and changed their name or have a new nickname or have a now-dead name, there are many contexts for a name change where it’s easy to slip.

Women I’ve known for a long time who get married and change their name? I default—at least in my head—to their maiden name for a long time. I get it eventually, and having it reinforced on social media helps. Names are not one of my strengths, and I think that once one finally gets in there and sticks, it’s just as resistant to changing as it was to sticking. 

But also, that’s my problem, not theirs, and it’s my job to make it stick, not their job to accommodate me, though quick, patient corrections when I’ve made a mistake and don’t realize it are welcome and appreciated.

I’ve never heard anyone complain about learning a new name when it was a woman who got married and changed her name (unless the new name was “difficult”). Other contexts, somehow, it’s a very big deal.

I know a fair number of trans people who all have different names now than when I got to know them. (You can hear conversations with three of them here, here, and here.) In those cases, I’m more likely to mess up pronouns than names, but I’ve got them all reassigned in my head now and don’t need to think about it any more to get it right.

Yes, it takes some effort. It’s worth the effort to respect another person’s humanity in this way.

(I think I mess up pronouns more often than names mainly because I have more opportunity to mess them up. A pronoun might get used a dozen times in a story, where a name typically comes and goes once, maybe twice. And also, I see names on social media but rarely gendered language.)

As a person with a not-English last name, I’ve been in countless situations where the people around me didn’t take the time or use the energy to learn to say my name correctly, much less spell it. (See: current URL)

As a teacher, I learned to say every student’s name, as long as they corrected my mistakes. (Which is to say: I don’t know I mispronounced them if no one spoke up.) I’m horrified by how many of my colleagues assign nicknames to children instead of learning to say a long or unconventional name.

Nothing says “You’re not that important” like telling someone you can’t be bothered to learn and use their name.

As a teacher of immigrant children, I encouraged kids to use the name they actually preferred to be called in my classroom. And yes, I might mess it up, but yes, I want you to correct me so I can get it right, because it’s your name

Because some of my students were part of homeless families (living in cars or shelters or couch-surfing or worse), sometimes their name was the only thing they owned.

I don’t need to know that they’re homeless to honor the short phonetic sequence they want to label themselves with.

In addition to my nickname being unique and my last name having locally-unconventional consonant combinations, I didn’t change my name when I got married.

I like my locally-unconventional consonant combinations. I haven’t married anyone with a name I thought was more fun than mine, so I kept it. 

There are people who don’t respect that choice and call me by my husband’s last name. Fewer now than there used to be, which we can attribute to people getting better at it … or to me interacting with fewer people.

The takeaway is simple: learn people’s names. Pronounce them correctly. And use them. 

2 thoughts on “Use people’s preferred name”

  1. This is great advice. I’m personally pretty flexible with my name, unless people refer to me as “Bob,” which makes me wince a little. It’s rare, but it’s happened. I think we’ve touched on this in our FB chats before, but for the longest time I was uncomfortable using “Heat” with you, because I felt I hadn’t earned the privilege to use what I thought was a nickname. I assumed it was reserved for people closer to you, and in my own way was trying to be respectful of this boundary. These days, since we’ve had the chance to get to know each other more, I’m more comfortable. Reading this helped me understand a bit more about how I was wrong, and was probably making *you* uncomfortable!

    I struggle with pronouns, too, as I’m sure a lot of people from our generation do. I’ve been trying to start from a default pronoun of “they” if I’ve never met the person and don’t know how they identify, but it does require some effort to remember to do that. It’s definitely a worthwhile, and necessary, effort, though!

    • Yes, I do remember that, and I could have included it but … I didn’t remember it when I was writing.

      Starting from a “they” default is a good idea—I’m going to hang on to that one!


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