So what’s so special about a name? (Guest Commentary)

For years, new Canadians have abandoned hard-to-pronounce birth names – let’s end that
By Vigen Nazarian
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/11/2011

Thirty years ago, I came to Canada in pursuit of higher education and a new life. I had three priorities — study hard, have my family join me and become a Canadian citizen. My mission was to achieve my goals as fast as possible by tapping into the world of resources Canada had opened up to me.

But, like many others who make a life in a new country, I soon realized my name — specifically its pronunciation — was an obstacle to communication. People did not know how to wrap their tongues around it.

I’ve been called Why-gen, Vee-gen, Vigan and a few other variations I am too embarrassed to mention. At one point, a university friend decided to baptize me with a new name, Vik with a K, claiming my real name was too difficult to pronounce and Vik was close enough. I relented, accepting this new handle would deliver me from ongoing “name abuse” and my peers and professors would accept me with less prejudice — even though I was, and remain, very proud of my Armenian heritage and name and did not want to give it up. In the end, I relented, accepting my Vik identity to remove barriers and claim greater advantage in achieving my goals.

Mine is a story many newcomers to Canada share. In a country that celebrates and encourages diversity, my personal battle with name pronunciation is a familiar story. Many immigrants, such as myself, find themselves falling into a practice of “not rocking the boat” and accepting a compromised, anglicized version of their name in order to achieve their goals faster.

The issue of cultural diversity is one facing many employers. Large and small corporations are actively implementing diversity best practices, such as tapping into international talent pools, English as a second language (ESL) training, partnerships with community organizations and service providers. Many employers also have programs in place that ensure a culturally friendly workplace — inclusive of communications programs, equality and equity policies and diversity awareness training.

A few years ago, diversity officers were something of novelty, but now it’s a fairly established role in many Fortune 500 companies. Yet, for all the policy and practices, there is one simple and practical approach that can achieve great advantage for any worker with an “odd” name — make that name easy to understand, to pronounce and to learn, ideally in a discreet fashion.

The web is a great equalizer. My friend Jerry is called “Jelly” in China and John is “Yawn” in Sweden. With the advent of web and email communications, organizations have lost the traditional boundaries for doing business and consequently those with “simple” names are experiencing the same challenge when interacting with their counterparts worldwide.

Three decades have now passed. I have achieved my original goals and I have set some new ones. I have personally witnessed Canada become the most diverse and multicultural country in the world and I am proud to be a part of it. I know now that people in my community, my workplace and my country are more sensitive to our individual identities and more willing to accept and celebrate our differences. Whether it’s your name, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or beliefs, diversity is what makes us stronger, more tolerant and more compassionate global citizens.

Today, I use my birth name proudly and encourage everyone to do the same. I also try to pronounce people’s names correctly showing the respect due to all of us as individuals. Use your real name with pride and engage in the global diversity movement — it’s to everyone’s benefit.

Vigen Nazarian is CEO and founder of Waterloo, Ont.-based ANTVibes. He can be reached at (289) 997-2127 or vigen@antvibes.com.

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