I would like to announce that I am not a girl-blogger seeking anonymity, as many of our commenters suspect.
My first name, Giri, ends with an i that’ll hoodwink you into think it’s an l depending on your monitor resolution and attention to detail. I can’t blame you: you’ve seen the word “girl” far more often than you’ve ever seen my name, so your brain slots it into the nearest familiar parsing of those letters. I get it. Gender reassignment occurs daily in the small space between an i and its dot.
Having a rare name in America is a gold mine for the personal essay; producing such an essay practically qualifies as a rite of passage for second-generation kids with writerly ambitions. I tried this exercise a few years ago, so I won’t revisit that except to mention the glory days when I couldn’t even pronounce my own name. But you can never quite forget the gulf between how it’s pronounced and the way strangers will earnestly but erroneously pronounce it, because I’m confronted with so many reminders. As it turns out, life is constantly asking you to say your name. (For reference: unless you can really roll the r like a brown person, I prefer a version that rhymes with witty or P. Diddy.) I’ll try to offer some practical advice addressing this issue.
At a coffee shop, I am merely “Nathan.” This way I’m not even lying, and the interaction proceeds frictionlessly. Barring some rom-com-style combustion with your barista, this exchange is only about you getting your coffee, not making your name intelligible and memorable to this stranger. Especially if that would only lengthen the time between your order and your finished coffee: the barista stumbles through your name, you play a little call-and-response, then she asks about the spelling, or just barrels ahead and tries her own creative approximation, a little jazz-scat by way of Sharpie. (Gitty, Gede, G’day, Gideon.) This solution makes everybody’s lives easier. A more principled person than I would stick to his or her true pronunciation, maybe arguing that persistent exposure can enlighten the world and build cross-cultural tolerance, but I’m too lazy and impatient for that. If you have a more pronounceable last name at hand, opt for that, or you could seize this opportunity to role-play and re-christen yourself with the name you’ve always wanted to try. For those four minutes, you can finally be Jet, Cindy, BillSimmons.
With substitute teachers, I leap—or leapt, as I don’t really have a lot of subs these days—to their aid. As soon as roll call starts, you ready yourself, and as it nears, you know the familiar signs: they were speeding through all the white names, and all of a sudden they’re stalling and their eyes widen, mouth agape, as if struck by the arrow of your name. I know where I stand (alphabetically, and as a young man), so I just say it aloud, the right way, and put him out of his misery. Then I offer a quick mnemonic device for correct pronunciation. If the guy is going to be in charge of your class for the next 50 minutes or the next three days, you might as well help him do his job as well as possible. Unless you plan on seizing the occasion for some dope pranks, in which case, further complicate your name, tack on some ghost-syllables, make sure he never knows what name to pass along to your teacher unless he’s bold enough to just say, the, uh, the brown one.
At a party, it depends on who I’m talking to. If this is some slack-jawed jabroni who won’t recall the interaction—or some anxious social climber already peering over my shoulder for a shinier conversation partner—I put no effort in. Just mumble the name once and don’t fret if they don’t get it. If it’s someone capable of sustaining eye contact, I’ll take the time, and can even rely on my name as a tried-and-true topic to get the conversation rolling along. Is this a form of self-exoticization? Am I holding my own name up as some sort of trinket picked up during my travels abroad? I’m slightly conflicted on this one. Your name is an unalienable part of your life experience. If you can use that life experience to enliven casual banter, at no cost to your emotional well-being, you might as well. New people, if they’re good people, tend to react to a rare name in thoughtful, sometimes amusing ways, all of which are viable paths of conversation. You can deflate their anxiety about mispronunciation with warmth and self-awareness—which is not to say you should be apologetic.
With new coworkers, I teach them my name. No question here. Unless you enjoy confusing people you will be surrounded by for hours of your life, or enjoy hearing your name mangled in novel ways on a regular basis by people who determine your livelihood, just clear things up. Do it early, and unambiguously, and with a sense of humor, if you can manage it. This issue can be skirted altogether if, as is increasingly likely, you arrive at a workplace dominated by textual communication, where we hardly have to vibrate our vocal cords at all, and the issue of pronunciation never even arises. Only spelling! Here’s my colleague Drew making a sincere attempt on my first day of work:
With friends, I’m flexible. There are abbreviations and nicknames and intentional perversions of your name (I answer to Gary at this point), and everything else that sprouts up when you spend way too much time with people. Across different social circles, and over the course of my life, I have also fluctuated in the vigilance of pronunciation-policing. Meaning I can enjoy this occasional pastime: watching friends from disparate circles meet each other and debate the issue while you sit there like an impartial, cackling judge. One measure of the quality of your friends is how readily they step up to explain your name to newcomers, sensing your exhaustion. In the best-case scenario you can just sit back and let them do the busy work.
With parents ... I mean, they stuck you with the label. They better know how to say it.