The situation is a one-on-one meeting with someone I have never met before.

I don't know much about that guest, just their profession or connection to our organization, not even if they are from a different country. That means, that I don't know about possible cultural differences. But it is safe to assume, that they are accustomed to the US. It is rather formal, think of business or academia. A possible situation is picking someone up at an airport or the like.

I only got their name in writing. There is no one to help me, since they don't know either and aren't present anyway.

My goal is to greet them as politely and gently as possible, so that they really feel welcome. How to achieve this goal in the best way?

If requested, I can try to give further details. Sorry, if it appears a little bit vague, but this is a situation that can arise more often in the future (e. g. on short notice, that I shall welcome X and ...). So I want to be prepared beforehand. I ask here, because the focus lies on the interpersonal aspects.

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    Even if you know the culture and the name, it doesn't guarantee you'll know the pronunciation. I went to high school with three girls named Tamara: one Tuh-MARE-uh, one Tuh-MAHR-uh, and one TAM-uh-ruh. – 1006a Sep 15 '17 at 16:50
up vote 88 down vote accepted

I am Indian. My first name is hard for many Indians to pronounce and my last name, common as it may be in India, has 14 characters! I know I am one in a million when I say this, but you can destroy my name as badly as you can, I'd not get offended.

I know that my name is hard to pronounce. I am in the US and I know my name is not an English name. It is an Indian/Sanskrit name. I acknowledge that an American person might not be able to say it even nearly close to it sounding right.

So it does not bother me. I've read so many articles about people getting severely offended about their names not being pronounced right. That has always infuriated me, but a huge majority of them are like that and I hate it.

It is wise of you to try not to offend the majority. Let me break down my personal experience with a guy, lets call him John, who tried his absolute best to make sure he didn't offend me at all.

The first minute you meet someone:
This is always the most awkward point. John flew through this like butter on a hot pan. He saw me, walked up to me with a beautiful big smile on his face, and said, "Well hello there, how do you do. I am John, pleased to meet you".

Its been a few minutes and pleasantries have been exchanged:
I know what you are thinking. "Wait a minute, John didn't even try to pronounce his name. He didn't address the person with his name. That is messed up". It bothered me too. I knew why he didn't though, because he was scared he was going to mess it up.

We were in the car together and he started talking about the flight and how was the trip and all that. Then he says: "So don't mind me for asking you this, can you pronounce your name for me please? I had a bit of difficulty getting it out right and I didn't want to offend you. So I stayed on the safer side."

I pronounced my name for him, there were a few "No its ...." "No its....." and then he almost got it. I laughed and said "good enough".

He then proceeded to ask me what it means. He asked me a few questions about where I am from and some more cultural questions about the place I am from.

Points to remember:

  1. If you are afraid you are going to mess someone's name up, don't try saying it the minute you meet them. Give it a minute. Get comfortable with them and make them feel comfortable with you, then pop the question.
  2. Try and get them to tell you their name without asking. That is why John told me "I am John, pleased to meet you". My immediate response to that was "I am Crazy Cucumber, pleased to meet you too". This way, you get a tiny little shot of how they say their name.
  3. Once you've picked them up and they're in your car, ask them to pronounce their name for you. Make an honest attempt. Make as many honest attempts as you can.
  4. DO NOT just end it saying "Is it OK if I call you [first letter of their name]?". People do that to me all the time and that actually bothers me. Its OK if you cannot pronounce their name, don't tell them you're going to call them by the first letter of their name.
  5. If it is practically impossible for you to make the noise of their name, ask them if there is a short form to their name. The way you phrase that question is: "Do you have a nickname?" or "How do your friends call you?"
  6. Do not look at the name and think, "Oh I can shorten it to this and use this. They probably go by that". They probably don't go by that. You ask them the question in point 5 and they'd tell you they go by whatever.
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    I wish you could have trained my old boss. We had a great client that mostly was in contact with me. He had a name that wasn't easy, but I also didn't think it was particularly difficult compared to others. My boss shortened it, without permission, to something that would be a derogatory adjective in English. He was the only person amused by that. He would try to say the clients name when the client was present, but at meetings he called him this other rude name. Then he said it to my client's face on accident one day. Totally ruined the relationship. – threetimes Sep 13 '17 at 15:54
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    @threetimes wow!! On top of shortening it, he shortened it to a derogatory adjective. How did he become a boss, I'll never know. That sounds like something the boss from the office would do. – Crazy Cucumber Sep 13 '17 at 16:13
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    As another person with a name too complicated for many people to pronounce I'd definitely second your answer. It's fine if you can't pronounce my name and I'll gladly try to teach you. And if you are making an honest attempt at my name, I won't even mind the mispronounciations because I know my name is difficult. Just don't try any funny stuff with my name since I actually have various short-forms etc. ready just in case you are going to struggle too much with my name. – Haris Sep 13 '17 at 18:03
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    Went to college with a friend in the US. He had that noise in his name. That noise, when written in English, is written with the letters ZH. The language is ACTUALLY TamiZH not Tamil. We replace that ZH with a regular L so other people (even other people in our own country) can make that noise. My friend didn't. His name went from being ArunmoZHi to Mozby! :) We joked and laughed about it, but it was his fault. He shouldn't expect Americans or even Indians outside of my state to be able to say his name correctly. He learned that the hard way. – Crazy Cucumber Sep 14 '17 at 13:57
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    If you're from India and you're one in a million, that means there's about 1400 people just like you. =D – corsiKa Sep 14 '17 at 20:47

I used to pick people up at the airport. I did the (maybe hokey) thing of holding a sign. Then when I would meet them, I would straight away tell them I am unsure how to properly pronounce their name. I think even cross culturally people understand this is a respectful gesture. I do want to say it correctly and I find asking right away is far less awkward than putting them in a position to correct me or put up with me saying it wrong. So the exchange at an airport would look like this:

Me: Hello! Welcome. How was your flight?

Them: Answers...blah blah

Me: I am (insert name). (Normally they will now say their own name, even though it's on my sign. However, if they do not, then you go on). No one has informed me on how to pronounce your name.

Them: Pronounces name.

Me: (Recite name aloud slowly and clearly so that in case I have missed something, they have a chance now to help me refine what I thought I heard.)

Once I think I have it right, I say it once more and ask if that is correct. You can modify the same approach even if not picking them up by simply skipping the initial part of that "how was your flight" stuff.

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    I don't think holding a sign is "hokey", especially if you haven't met! Airports can be disorienting and I know I would have trouble figuring out who I was supposed to meet if I hadn't seen them in person before. Plus, a sign (maybe with company logo, etc) may make the traveler feel more at ease that you aren't some random person trying to whisk them away :P – Em C Sep 13 '17 at 17:22
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    @EmC: I'll just add (for other non-english natives out here) that you think that holding a sign is "ok" (right, appropriate), and not "hokey" (obviously contrived, phony) (I had to look up that one, never heard it before). – Olivier Dulac Sep 14 '17 at 12:24
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    @OlivierDulac I think in this sense it's meant as corny/cheesy/kitsch, not phony. Not a native speaker either, though. – André Paramés Sep 14 '17 at 14:01
  • Where I am from hokey covers also anything that might feel awkward. Contrived is a perfect word for it as it means "not occurring naturally". I think in my case it felt that way because am not a "driver", I am a business associate. If I were a driver by profession, I would think signage feels more professional as my actual job is to take them somewhere. For me, as a way to meet someone in person you hope to do business with, holding a sign doesn't feel quite as polished as I like, though I do think it's the most likely option when meeting in an airport. – threetimes Sep 15 '17 at 18:41
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    Holding up a sign communicates much more clearly than a group of 20 or 30 people repeatedly shouting out different names! – alephzero Sep 16 '17 at 17:34

How to find out how to pronounce someone's name:

  1. "Hi I'm Alex, I apologise, I don't know how to say your name, could you clarify how I should say it?"

They say: "Jacob".

Repeat the name at least 3 times as soon as you can, take every opportunity to do so: "Jacob, with a J not an I? Jacob, right? So Jacob, how was your flight?"

  1. Sometimes you can Google a name and ask Google how it's pronounced. I had an Irish marketing guy I worked with called Eoin. I looked up on Google how to pronounce it and it turns out you read it like "Owen". Needless to say he was super impressed when I called out "Hi Owen" when we first Said hi. Apparently everyone else called him Eon. :-)

  2. If you know someone who knows them ask how they pronounce it. Blame it on them if it turns out they told you wrong way. :-)

If you have time, try to google the name. You may be able to find a baby names site or a Youtube video where you can listen to a native speaker pronounce the name. You may still not be able to consistently replicate the sounds, but it can give you a good idea of how to say it and time to practice.

I've done this a few times before and it works pretty well. If you can, still try to get them to say it first in case they do it differently.

I have a last name that traps Spanish speakers. If they see it in writing, they'll trip on the mute consonant at the end. Repeating doesn't work well, because they stay fixated on how they thought it would sound when reading it. However, I know they can say it just fine, because there is a word in Spanish that sounds just right.

I can't say the word (that would be just like repeating and it wouldn't work) so instead I say "like the verb ..." and they always immediately get it.

I mention this anecdote to illustrate the fact that I came up with a simple procedure to make it simple for Spanish speakers to say my name. Most likely, if this person you mention is accustomed to the US, and they have a name that the average US person has trouble with, they did the same, they're used to it and it's a non-issue.

So, there shouldn't be a problem, unless you insist too hard on not offending them.

Just say "Hello, I'm ..." and shake hands. They'll get the hint and say their name, because they're used to that process. If you find it impossible to memorize it, just say "I'm gonna need some help with that" or something similar. Frame it as if you're both solving a problem. Maybe there's a short form, which you should ask. As said above, don't shorten it yourself, you might accidentally come up with something derogatory in another language...

Anyway, from what you say you're so anxious not to offend that you're putting the kiddie gloves and treating them like they're a temperamental child. This is A LOT more annoying than getting a name mispronounced. It's like you're going to take their hand and walk them through the hazardous process of getting you to say their name, which they probably already did ten times this week. It's a sure way to start on the wrong foot...

A fairly common solution for this is to subtly get them to say it for you, either by using what you do know, or else by introducing a third person into the mix. These have a varying degree of politeness, so only you can know what the situation may or may not allow.

If you are quite sure of one of their names, call them Mr./Ms. (Mrs. only if you're certain!)/Dr. Lastname or say "Hi, I'm Anne. Can I call you Firstname?"

If you are only sure of a syllable or two, you could start saying their name and trail off, implying that they should finish it. If their name is not a typical one for your area, they may be used to correcting people. They may appreciate the effort.

If there is another person with you, you could introduce only the person you know, and let the guest introduce themselves to that person.

If you two have a mutual acquaintance who has heard it spoken, ask them for assistance.

You could also do some research online. If it's a foreign name, look it up in a name dictionary for that culture. Look for one that includes audio or IPA pronunciation. You could also visit a relevant forum and post a request for help in learning the name in question.

If these or other answers aren't an option, just go the route of avoidance and greet them as sir or ma'am.

Go to a site called Forvo. (I don't want to provide a link lest I trigger a spam filter.) On this site, you can hear words pronounced by native speakers. The name that you want to know about may already be there, or if not, you can request that someone pronounce it.

I have an unpronounceable name and I often meet people with similarly unpronounceable ones (it must be a curse or something).

In my case, I always anticipate with something like "you will forget it immediately" or "good luck with remembering that" - in a cheeky tone which makes it easy for them to try again, etc.

They still forget it but at least for the time being they are fine.

When I meet someone with a complicated name, I usually say "I can try to pronounce it right but I fill fail" - with a sorry smile. People who know that their name is tough are eager to help. The ones who do not realize it (a very rare case) are usually happy to help.

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