Recently, I have become a fan of the podcast The Mash-Up Americans and on their podcast they ask the question “What’s your Starbucks name?” After hearing the story behind, American comedian, Hasan Minhaj’s Starbucks’ name, “Sean”, I wanted to process what it could mean when college students and alumni from an ethnic background give your institution a “Starbucks” name.
I work in alumni relations with students and alumni who identify and create experience through their ethnic identity. Throughout my career I have experienced my share of introducing myself to students from all over the world and when it comes time for me to learn their names, some will say “Just call me……”, now in the beginning I would accept whatever the American name was, but I found that this accommodation was for me, the American who typically has trouble pronouncing names from a different country. This is where the introduction of “What’s your Starbucks name” begins and as an alumni relations professional this should send a red flag. I believe this should send a red flag, because off rip I am developing a relationship that is not honoring one of the core elements that is important in everyone’s culture….their name.
Now I understand people can be called whatever they want, but when the name I am being given is a Starbucks name out of making it easier for me this is where I see the problem. I believe that it is the responsibility of any educational advancement professional to step out of their comfort zone and do what it takes to learn and pronounce correctly an individual’s name. I believe that honoring a person’s name is the first step in truly engaging your alumni. Here are a couple of thoughts about being a receiver of a Starbucks name:
- The Starbucks name you learn is not the official student record name that gets imported into your alumni database. Only knowing and recognizing the Starbucks name makes it difficult to pick out and cultivate the name of a student/alumni you actually have a relationship with. The lack of knowledge of the legal name can impact the prospect and cultivation experience of your alumni and friends.
- Surface connections, have you ever experienced a person who you thought was your friend or that you at least had more than an acquaintance relationship and they sent you a card with your name spelled wrong, or they had to pronounce your name and botched it all the way up? It can make a person question the depth of the relationship you have. Imagine asking an alumnus to serve on your board or a donor to financially support a project and you can’t even get their name right.
Check out this funny sketch, “Substitute Teacher, by Key & Peele that shows the mispronunciation of a person’s name through a different lens. Click Here
If your institution, alumni association or foundation is wanting to diversify your boards and donor pool start with the name. Here are five tips to help your organizations honor your students, alumni and donor’s names:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for the appropriate pronunciation of their name, even if it takes multiple attempts. It seems like after the second time of “tell me again how to say your name” the awkwardness sets in and you say oh okay, got it…when you know you really don’t. It’s uncomfortable for both parties, so press your way through and do what you need to learn the name appropriately. That may mean spelling it out phonetically or even asking if you can record them saying their name, so you can listen to it over and over again. It’s better to learn to pronounce their name correctly, then saying it fast or saying it quietly.
- Take a class or download a video/audio to help you with pronunciations. I know at my institution we have a Confucius Institute and they offer Chinese speaking courses and it can help you practice pronouncing sounds that may be unique for you.
- Make sure your information cards or sign in sheets or whatever format you collect data ask for both the individual’s legal name and their preferred name and make sure it gets entered into the overall alumni database.
- Always verbally give your student, alumni and/or donor the opportunity to correct you if you say their name or spell their name incorrectly. Some people will not correct you if you say their name wrong because they are so use to it, or they don’t want to embarrass you. Providing an open opportunity for someone to correct you about their name can truly send a message that you are genuinely trying to learn their name and that can really contribute to a developing relationship.
- Remember, remember, remember this is one I struggle with the most. If you don’t practice it, you will lose it, so create some type of system that will help you remember how to pronounce a person’s name.
Settling for a “Starbucks” name should not be acceptable for your organization, especially if you are earnestly trying to be more inclusive.