How do I get people to get my name/gender right?
October 15, 2007 6:52 AM   Subscribe

My odd to pronounce/gender-unusual name gives me lots of problems. How can I diplomatically solve all of them?

My name is Mikell. It's pronounced exactly like "Michael." But I'm a woman. It's always been kind of annoying -- most people mispronounce it on reading it, and I did have a boyfriend whose grandmother thought he was gay until he brought me home in person -- but now that I'm out in the work force, it's really become problematic.

So, on to the issues!

(1) Pronunciation. I continue to have it mispronounced, and there are some colleagues (both in my immediate job and in other things I'm involved in) who continue to mispronounce it, despite having been corrected by others and having heard me pronounce it the correct way more than once. What do I do about them?

(2) Nicknames. A coworker has decided to call me "Mike." I sign all my emails with my full name, introduce myself to people around him with my full name, and I know everyone else calls me by my full name and he must hear it. Yet, I am "Mike." (Today it was written out in an email from him, which is the straw that broke this camel's back). How do I politely tell him no-thanks to the nickname?

(3) Gender. I work in engineering, so it's sadly often safe to assume that a non-gender-specific name probably belongs to a male. Since mine involves the letters "Mike" I usually get assumed to be male in email and phone messages left for me. When I put up a job posting, most cover letters are written to "Mr. Mikell Lastname." Emails addressed to "Sir." Customers refer to me as "him" when speaking with my colleagues or other customers. Is there a little note I can put in my email signature line that will clear up the gender issue without being obnoxious or making it so much of an issue that it endangers my credibility?

The big issue is that this name thing always puts first meetings at a slightly awkward tone; someone mispronouncing my name or getting my gender wrong right off the bat makes me feel scummy for starting a professional relationship by correcting them (and I know I've embarrassed people when they weren't expecting a woman to answer the phone/door or show up at a meeting). Doing this over and over is really wearing me down, and while a one-off solution is just "Actually, could you call me [correct pronunciation]" or whatever seems obvious, I'm so sensitive to it by now that it feels awkward. Anyone have a good way to solve it?
posted by olinerd to Human Relations (44 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For #3, why not just sign your letters/list your contact information as "Ms. Mikell Lastname?"
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:56 AM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do you have a feminine sounding middle name?? You could include that in you email signature and maybe change your email itself.
You could also include Ms. etc in email.
I think many many people have unpronouncable names, especially last names and i don't think it sets a bad tone to just smile when meeting them and repeat you name back to them, correctly pronouced.
posted by beccaj at 6:59 AM on October 15, 2007

If it makes you feel better, I'm a woman managing construction projects with a very obviously feminine first name, and I still get letters and faxes addressed to "Sir" and "Mr. Lastname". So your number 3 wouldn't necessarily be solved if you were Michelle!
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:01 AM on October 15, 2007

How can I diplomatically solve all of them?

The simple solution that meets all of your needs would be to use a different name at work. Michelle, Sarah, Mary, Linda, Jane. If you believe you'll be dealing with this constantly, and you feel uncomfortable in between the issues of "get my name right!" and "I don't want to be constantly offending people!," this might be the easiest answer. You could tell people it's a middle name; as long as HR gets your checks right, there's no short-term harm in it.

There is harm, though, in the possible effect on your professional career. For example, I work in a field where the first thing people would do before interviewing me would be to Google me to find out if the public-facing activities on my CV are legit. A name change would be confusing there, or might convey I had something to hide. If you have had your hand in long-term projects that will survive your tenure at any one company, you might not want to deal with a name change.

And there's also the fact that it's your birth name and really, you shouldn't have to change it. But some people care more about that point than others, and if you aren't one of the former, you might consider a nom de work, as it were.

People like #2 (who think it's cute to foist his own needs on people despite their preferences to the contrary) can't be helped no matter what your name is. Just out and tell him very plainly, "You know, I really prefer 'Mikell'. Thanks for understanding!" (and I'd reply one-on-one to the email he just sent you -- the timing is right for it to seem like "no big deal," and he'll likely play ball since it's in writing).
posted by pineapple at 7:10 AM on October 15, 2007

Best answer: My first name (Lara) is gender specific, but many people pronounce it wrong, which is both their fault and the fault of my geography. Since it's so close to Laura, that's what I usually get. Since I'm from New Jersey, the first "a" I use when saying it is foreign to most people beyond the tri-state area, so I get "Lar-a" and "Lare-a" a lot.

It's just something I've had to get used to bulldozing through--though in third grade I did have my mother write a letter to my teacher to tell her how to pronounce it correctly. Most of the time I am able to be straightforward but also lighthearted: "You're probably going to forget this/ I know it's hard for anyone not from Jersey," etc, "But it's Lara."

Ideas: Going by M. Lastname, therefore masking gender identity all the way through? I also like the Ms. Mikell Lastname idea, just to be straightforward, especially when people are applying to you for a job (and a way to weed out those who obviously don't read closely enough!). It could also just be a sly way to adjust your e-mail signature.

As for the co-worker calling you Mike, I think directness is in order. He may think it's cute. It's not. Maybe stick it onto the end of an e-mail, "By the way, I prefer to go by my full name," or if you want to lighten that up a bit, "My mother always hated nicknames, do you mind calling me Mikell?"
posted by atayah at 7:11 AM on October 15, 2007

(1) Ignore it. I have multiple coworkers with names that don't immediately roll off the American tongue and it's kind of universally known that it's going to get screwed up. Say it phonetically for them once or twice.
(2) Names are a given, but nicknames are kind of an unfortunate fact of life, sometimes. Work is a professional situation, though, so you can request that someone not use a nickname for that reason. If they persist, just feel lucky you're not being called "chief" all the time, or something derogatory.
(3) Throw a "Ms." in front of your name. If they still screw it up, so be it. Feel lucky that they recognize you're female when meeting you or talking to you, I've known people who haven't even had that luxury.
posted by mikeh at 7:12 AM on October 15, 2007

Best answer: As someone who has recently been contacting job posters with non-gender-specific names, I beg you to identify yourself as Ms. Mikell. It saves a lot of stress on the applicant end (this should also hold for email signatures, bio on the company website, etc.).
posted by Partial Law at 7:19 AM on October 15, 2007

I have a really weird given name, so I go by a slightly less weird, but still unusual, nickname. I have gone by this nickname through grade school, high school, college and several jobs. No one calls me by my given name. My mother calls me by my nickname. In my most recent job, however, they got ahold of my real name and refused to call me by my chosen name. Damn infuriating, so I sort of understand where you are coming from.

It got to the point that I simply refused to answer anyone who called me by my "real" name. I just acted like I didn't hear them or actually said on several occasions, "Oh, are you talking to me? My name is X." It took a while, but finally everyone got it and now uses the name I prefer.

By the way, I like your name, and got how to pronounce it immediately. You may want to think of it as a useful instant IQ test for new acquaintances.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:21 AM on October 15, 2007

I think that making a point of the correct pronouncation of your name, in a humourous or slightly self-deprecating manner, can be played to your advantage. I have a mildly humourous surname, "Onions". I know that I'm always going to have to repeat it, and that some people are always going to snigger. But I also know that this snigger gives me an opportunity to get a little joke in that will decieve people into thinking that I am a friendly, down-to-earth guy. I also know that people are extremely unlikely to forget my name.

Your situation is obviously different to mine, presenting what look like more significant difficulties. However, you may be able to find ways to turn the situation to your advantage.
posted by howfar at 7:26 AM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

(1) Pronunciation. Just continue to gently correct them.

(2) Nicknames. Incredibly rude. Just tell him to please not call you Mike. Next time he does it, wince and tell him to please call you Mikell. If it's via e-mail, add a little note to the same effect. No need to be mean about it, as he sounds clueless, but stand your ground. If he gives you any "oh, it's a habit" nonsense, you'll have to repeat that your name isn't Mike, you don't answer to it, and please break this habit because it seriously bothers you.

(3) Gender. Nthing to be Ms. Mikell Lastname.
posted by desuetude at 7:28 AM on October 15, 2007

1. Correct people when they mispronounce it. Tell them to pretend it is spelled Michael because that's the way it is pronounced. Maybe it'll help them remember how to pronounce it. Other than that, get used to it being mispronounced. People love to mangle names. I'm sure even "jane Smith" has had her name mangled more than once.

2. Tell him you really don't like the nickname Mike, and you'd really prefer that he call you Mikell. Or tell him you're not really a nickname sort of person. Just make sure you are casual and friendly when you say it and it should be fine.

3. Seconding beccaj, if your middle name is feminine, use your full name. Of course this may create even more confusion with the pronunciation of your first name, but it will decrease the awkward first meetings. In any case, first name middle name last name is not obnoxious or credibility-damaging. Lots of people go by two first names or first-and-middle names, like mary kate or jamie lynn, etc.

A more complicated solution may be a sig line like: Mikell "michael" Lastname and include a link to some professional networking site or corporate bio or something that makes it obvious you are female, either through linkedin endorsements that include a generous amount of "she" references, or lists you as Ms. Mikell Lastname.
posted by birdlady at 7:33 AM on October 15, 2007

Atayah's final advice sounds right to me, but since reading your complaint, I have also come to believe that any woman who wished to be called "Mike" would probably be pretty cool. I'd admire that, anyway.
posted by rokusan at 7:36 AM on October 15, 2007

This is the bane of a whole generation that got gender neutral names or names with odd spellings or pronunciations. The variations on Kayla, alone, (including Michaela) are mindboggling. You are not alone, lots of people are going through life dealing with this kind of problem.

Stand your ground. Tell your coworker you will not respond to "Mike" under any circumstances. Use "Ms" or other clues in outbound mail and postings. In person, be forthright and not apologetic about correcting people. Don't ask them [your words above]: "Actually could you call me [correct pronunciation]" but tell them: "It's [correct pronunciation], actually."
posted by beagle at 7:37 AM on October 15, 2007

By the way, I like your name, and got how to pronounce it immediately. You may want to think of it as a useful instant IQ test for new acquaintances.

That's absurd. I bet you only pronounced it correctly because you knew going in that the problem was with name mispronunciation.

Anyway, other than using a different name, any solution is going to involve constant effort on the OP's part. Even if the people with whom she interacts daily get it, any new acquaintances will require constant correction (in the US at least). The easiest solution would be to get over it and just go with the flow. That's what I'd do, but I don't put much importance in my own name, so YMMV.
posted by mullacc at 7:39 AM on October 15, 2007

Honestly, I wouldnt know if your name is female. I imagine that if your email sig was, say pink, or had some other feminine quality to it I would take that as a pretty big hint. Not to mention adding "Ms." in there.

usually get assumed to be male in email and phone messages left for me.

Dont use the system voicemail greeting. Use your own voice.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:39 AM on October 15, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, I appreciate the advice. Off to change the ol' signature and respond to the coworker...

Much appreciated!

~Ms. Mikell
posted by olinerd at 7:39 AM on October 15, 2007

2. Tell him to stop. Repeatedly. Be funny about it for awhile before you get rude. My favorite line for people who call me Jacqui is 'Well, you can call me Jacqui, but it's not my name, so you've only got a 50% chance I'll realize you're talking to me.' Adjust your percentage in relation to your annoyance at being called Mike.

3. Use Ms. Adding a feminine middle name might help, but it might just confuse people, too.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:39 AM on October 15, 2007

When I started in college I met a woman who had a highly unusual name, but she had completely grown into it. She introduced herself in the most warming, glowing way possible (name changed): "Hi, my name is Mumbledy Fumbledy Pumbleton, but please call me Dee." She was a person who always seemed totally comfortable in her skin and she was very proud to have a name that might otherwise be troublesome. By winning people over from the beginning, she also made sure that she was addressed how she wanted to be addressed.

While this doesn't change Mr. Numbnutzy Nicknamer, maybe it will work in the future.

Step up and say with a smile, "I'm Mikell Middlename Olinerd, but please call me Mikell".

(as an aside, I'm sorry to say that I read your name as meeKELL, assuming it to be a variant of Michal. I'm so pedestrian.)
posted by plinth at 7:40 AM on October 15, 2007

My passive-aggressive method of correcting people who shorten my given name is to respond by shortening their name in a very obvious manner. For instance, if someone named Kevin used the short form of my name in an email, I would begin my reply,

Dear Ke,

The idea being if they can arbitrarily ignore certain letters of my name, I can do the same...
posted by Gortuk at 7:47 AM on October 15, 2007

I love your name, and as you continue in your career you will notice certain advantages. I have an unusual name that is unique and does not convey gender. I have learned that people remember unusual names, and this can work to your advantage.

1) Pronunciation: I'm afraid that after correcting someone once, you just have to get used to it or let it go. After three years, my boss still mispronounces my name. I have learned to live with it, and it doesn't bother me anymore.

2) Nicknames: People do this. They are uncontrollable, these people. Some people really care what *you'd* like to be called, some ignore your preferences and are guided by their own. Again, acceptance works wonders here.

3) I'm also in a scientific field and everyone assumes I am a male sight-unseen. It doesn't matter. They will be surprised when they see you or hear your voice on a conference call for the first time, but usually it is a pleasant surprise, it seems.

In short, having a name very similar to yours in its challenges, the only strategy I've found is to let it go. I've come to enjoy the surprise when people with whom I have been corresponding see me for the first time. It's fun.
posted by frumious bandersnatch at 7:52 AM on October 15, 2007

I would like to second the middle name thing. I have known multiple people that went by their middle name, many of which I didn't even know that it was their middle name, I just assumed it was their first.

I have a really basic name (Amber) and yet I have people calling me: Amanda, Ashley, Ember, Ann... I even had someone call me Tracy once. I just think some people are horrible with names. I can understand your frustration.

I will also nth the Ms. in from of your given name. Good Luck!
posted by ForeverDcember at 7:53 AM on October 15, 2007

atayah: so I get "Lar-a" and "Lare-a" a lot

So, how is "Lara" supposed to be pronounced? Those are the only two pronunciations that come to mind.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:07 AM on October 15, 2007

If it's any consolation, you're not the first.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:13 AM on October 15, 2007

ArgentCorvid, maybe she's distinguishing between "Lare-a" and "Lare-uh", where the first has a hard ayyy sound at the end, almost like Lorraine.
posted by lizzicide at 8:25 AM on October 15, 2007

Have you thought about a strategically placed apostrophe?

Mike'll? Looks weird, but the pronounciation is clearer.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:25 AM on October 15, 2007

For #2, maybe explain that your name, "Mikell", actually has no "short form". (Depersonalizing your preference may help mask your irritation.)
posted by klarck at 8:32 AM on October 15, 2007

AgentCorvid, the first "a" in my name is closest to the first "a" in "apple." The mispronunciations I get are "Laura," "LAR-a" ("lar" to rhyme with "far"), and "Lair-ah," the last of which is most common around here in DC, which is cool. It's always stuck me as a bit strange, as the same people who say it in various ways will all say "Tara" and "Sara" in a way that closely rhymes with my name, but the "L" seems to throw people off. Splitting hairs when you come down to it, and I only correct those most off base (My mother was always the more militant at the correcting).

Anyway, even my partner jokes with a little chant of the first "a" in apple before she says my name.

Her name, by the way, is Laura. Yep.
posted by atayah at 8:39 AM on October 15, 2007

As for the grandmother thinking your beau gay, that happened to my brother, too. His name is Lehan (lee-han, only pronounced in closer to one syllable, like Liam with an "n"). He used to go by the nickname "Lee", which his girlfriend's best friend interpreted as "Leigh". Now he goes by his full name, which just confuses the ever-loving-hell out of everyone, who all try to call him Liam. He just has to constantly correct people. It is the burden of having a cool name.

Names cause so much grief...for instance, my name, Grace, nearly always merits the response, "Oh, that's such a pretty/lovely name." I've heard that phrase more times in my life....
posted by nursegracer at 8:47 AM on October 15, 2007

Oh, and to add a bit to my last comment, everyone in my family thought that I was gay for a little while because my fiance's name is Aubrey. The movie store we go to even wrote a note in his profile that says, "Aubrey is a cool GUY" so they would stop carding him.
posted by nursegracer at 8:50 AM on October 15, 2007

Shortly after moving to the US, I inadvertently shortened a woman's name of someone in my department, in a way that would have been considered (usually) acceptable and normal in the UK.

But in the US, the shortened version was a male diminutive, rather than ambidextrous, so to speak.

I was much happier that she told me straightforwardly that she preferred her full name, not just because of the sex confusion, but also because she preferred the full name to be used anyway.

Please let him know. He'll probably prefer to know. And you don't have to make excuses, just be very clear and straightforward.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:01 AM on October 15, 2007


Weird. Because where I grew up (and therefore the way I learned it), that 'a' sound just doesn't come after an 'L'. In fact, I'm having trouble figuring out how that works.

"Tara" and "Sara" were pronounced with "air-ah" after their initial letter, and I probably would have guessed the same with yours if it hadn't been for that stupid game...
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:04 AM on October 15, 2007

One thought. Lighten up a bit about this. You're bringing years of anger and resentment to everyone who makes the same mistake.

And your coworker? It's likely he's being an ass on purpose.
posted by filmgeek at 9:23 AM on October 15, 2007

As far as the jerk who calls you "Mike" goes, I have this same problem only it's my boss who does it. Happily for me, he HATES the boyish nickname that is common for his own given name. Problem solved.

You could just call this guy by some random name. He'll eventually say, "Why are you calling me Wendell? That's not my name." And you can say, "Exactly."
posted by MrFongGoesToLunch at 9:58 AM on October 15, 2007

Response by poster: Emailed coworker, he was cool about it. He's not a jerk or an ass by any means -- he's a really nice guy; problem is his name is Mike so I think he just kind of assumed. (And we all know what assuming does...) so thanks for the advice there.

To filmgeek: it's not anger and resentment. It's tough enough being a woman in my field anyway; it's even more frustrating/awkward/uncomfortable to always have to prove the gender thing twice over when dealing with someone over email or whatever.
posted by olinerd at 10:06 AM on October 15, 2007

Heh, I'm a woman with an unmistakably male name in the video game industry - girl, I feel ya. I don't have the nickname issue, but I get all kinds of gender confusion. Mostly, I either ignore it, or try to preempt it - signing stuff with Ms. is not a bad idea, actually. But I've gotten to the point where I just don't care - I mean, it doesn't affect my job, and the moment of confusion when I finally talk to someone on the phone/meet them in person is really kinda hilarious.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:26 AM on October 15, 2007

don't worry about correcting people as long as you do it with a smile. nobody will give it a second thought, and it's better to do it right off than later on after they've ingrained the incorrect pronunciation.

as for your co-worker, i think a short, friendly email would do the trick. "dear xx, i really enjoy working with you, but is there any way you could stop calling me "mike"? i would really, really appreciate it. thanks!" that way you're not correcting him, you're asking him to do something that will make you happy. men like to do this. (i'm not kidding--it works.) if you're unsure how he'll take it, you can always follow up with "don't feel bad--i should have said something sooner."
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:44 AM on October 15, 2007

Take pride in your unusual name. Don't be embarrassed or feel like you have to back down from it. It's your name! Own it, sister! I have a somewhat unusual name with an unusual spelling. I hated it when I was a kid, but as an adult, I've grown to love it. I never have to identify myself by my (even more unusual and hard to spell) last name. I am just C... Like Madonna or Cher. You are just Mikell. It's awesome!!

I have a female friend named Michal, and she often refers to herself as Mike.
posted by clh at 10:47 AM on October 15, 2007

This is just a thought, but the presence of an "e" closing a name often adds a female connotation to the name. Perhaps you might start using "Mikelle"?

That has the added benefit of ending your name with "elle", which is nearly universally, in English, a female name ending (Michelle, Rochelle, etc.) (presumably due to elle being a French female pronoun).
posted by WCityMike at 10:54 AM on October 15, 2007

I just wish your story could get posted to the myriad of baby name boards where tryndy mommeighs keep naming their daughters "James" and "Dylan" because it sounds "strong" and will help them in business in later life.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:57 AM on October 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

I know you said it's pronounced like Michael, but when I read "Mikell", my eyes insist that the emphasis is on the second syllable. It sounds more feminine that way, and it's pretty hard to shorten "mi-KELL" to "Mike". A data point to consider, anyway.
posted by Myself at 11:51 AM on October 15, 2007

Go with "Mikey".

Or "Kell". (But people will think it's short for "Kelly". Oh well.)
posted by LordSludge at 12:42 PM on October 15, 2007

I just wish your story could get posted to the myriad of baby name boards where tryndy mommeighs keep naming their daughters "James" and "Dylan" because it sounds "strong" and will help them in business in later life.

I just saw actress Jamie King on the cover of a magazine, and was surprised to see she's going by Jamie now. When she began her career, she was James King. (I think James is cooler, but whatever...)
posted by frosty_hut at 1:17 PM on October 15, 2007

When you introduce yourself, make sure you pronounce your own name clearly and at sufficient volume. Not everybody has great hearing. Hi, I'm Mikell Smith, it's not spelled the same as the male version, but it is pronounced 'michael.'

Sign emails Mikell Smith. Many people don't sign email, they rely on the from: field; you should make sure your correct spelling is in front of people.
posted by theora55 at 1:29 PM on October 15, 2007

Give the nicknamer a sure-to-be embarrassing nickname. You'll get detente, and probably respect.

Coworker: Hey Mike, where's the stapler?
Mikell: I'm not sure, ask Fred. Hey Fred, [creative nickname] over there wants to know where the stapler is.

Or go the Albert Brooks route. Call him Al and he'll correct you every time.

"Hey Al, how's it going?"

"It's Albert, everything is great!"
posted by gjc at 7:05 PM on January 21, 2008

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