This essay is part of the series “Being an alien in Germany”. You can find the introductory essay as well as other essays about the subject here.
My first name is Renata. My last name is pronounced brit-vets, with the accent on the i of the first syllable. Two syllables in my last name. Rarely have I met a German who is willing to pronounce my name correctly. And I say willing, because able they are. Two syllables, and no vowels or consonants which are unfamiliar to a German-speaking person.
I have heard a lot of variations to my name: Renate instead of Renata, Britvech, Britvek, Birtvech, Brivtek, Brivtech, Britsl, and so on. I wonder why it is so hard to accept that there are people who are simply not called Schmidt or Müller. We live in an immigration country, and you can hear names like Öztürk, Douraki, Giordano, Lopez, Kowalski and so on and so forth. Please try to pronounce these names correctly or at least as good as you can. Of course there are sounds which are hard for us to pronounce, the European r is something unusual to Americans and so they will of course use the American r when saying my name. But they still get it right and don’t just wildly switch the vowels and consonants. The Turkish soft g is another good example. It’s something I don’t get right as hard as I try. But I do try and make an effort.
Why is it that I feel so offended when people refuse to pronounce my name correctly? I must add that it is not only this that infuriates me. It’s more that a lot of people start laughing when I repeat my name so they can understand and pronounce it. They laugh. What’s funny? Nothing. They laugh so they don’t have to deal with it. They laugh so they can prove that they’re doing nothing wrong and that it is my fault. My fault because my name is not normal. And because I insist on those people to do something impossible. I don’t have the right to do that. The name is not normal, so why should people make the effort and say it. Maybe I should change my name and not give people a hard time anymore? I am obviously harassing them.
But the thing is, my name is a direct link to my identity and I want to be called by my name and by my name only. Every time I have to introduce myself officially, I am in physical pain anticipating how people will react. Millions of times did I have to explain myself, where I was from – because of my name – although it doesn’t matter, does it? If I want to open a bank account, if I am the maid of honor and tell the priest my name, if I need something from my health insurance: there is always this awkwardness, the laughter, and then eventually I will still be called the name those people invent for me and I have to surrender, because everything else will be too complicated. And I end up feeling not normal, not wanted and I also have the very strong sense that I simply do not belong.
We all crave for love and acceptance, and obviously we want to be accepted and respected for who we are. Our parents give us our names, our names are what we are given at birth. They constitute who we are in a miraculous way. They denote us, our individual personality, and beyond that they often denote our cultural heritage and personal history. Our names are the first thing we hear when we enter this world, and they (in most cases) stay with us until we die. Even if we change our names for some reason, they are what we are. Who we are. And as we develop and accept our identities by reflecting ourselves in our fellow beings, we need those fellow beings to reflect at least some of our truths with certainty, and one of these truths is our name. No matter where we come from and where we are, our name gives us stability and certainty. Attacking a person’s name is attacking their self-assurance.
So again I ask you: Make sure you at least try to pronounce foreign names correctly without making the person in question feel like an outsider and a nuisance because they insist you get it right.