Manila, 8 March 2017 — How important is your name to you, and how do you treat your name in your quest to become the best version of yourself? There may be more to it than you think, and than other people know.
It was early morning when I was called up to the President's office. In half an hour's time, he would speak at the opening of a conference with several high-level speakers from around the world in attendance. I could feel my heart beat faster as I wondered what I and my team might have forgotten in our preparations.
As I was ushered into his office, I saw that he was looking over his speech notes, and he asked me to sit down. Mr. Arriëns, he said, I see that you want me to mention some people by name. Could you help me prepare, so that I will pronounce their names correctly? You see, I like to take care to do that, just as I appreciate it when people take care in pronouncing my name correctly.
I was speechless for a moment. The topic was so different from what I had expected. My body relaxed, and I smiled. My chief executive was caring to show respect to others by checking how to pronounce their names correctly. I was still a junior staff at the time, and it made a deep impression on me, obviously, as I am still sharing my inspiration from that story after many years.
Learning from that example of leadership by modeling the way, I adopted a habit of checking and rechecking the spelling and pronunciation of people's names for meetings and in correspondence. I still may not get it right every time, and I often ask people in a one-on-one conversation if my pronunciation of their name is correct.
Caring about another person's name is a sign of respect and helps to start a good connection. More often than not, the expression of that care about a person's name is met with a twinkle in the eye, a smile, a firm handshake, or all of those. It is an affirmation that two human beings are respecting each other, regardless of their background and positions. It prepares the ground for doing work together.
What does your name mean to you? Do you care how people pronounce it, and do you help them to pronounce it correctly if they don't?
For many years, I did not.
I used to accept it when people pronounced my first name Wouter as "Wooter" or "Walter." As I worked on my self-leadership, I decided to change that, so that I can show up in a more congruent way, including self-respect for my name, who I am and what I stand for. I apologize to those who came to think that their pronunciation of my name was the right one, in the absence of a correction from my side.
Our names matter. They were given to us by our parents, and with good intentions. Therefore, being curious to discover someone's name and its meaning and pronunciation, is part of civilized behavior, of becoming our best.
Struggling to pronounce someone's name makes me realize how diverse we are in our world, and that there is always more to discover than what I know already.
This week, I learned that the name signs of Chinese students in a university in the US were removed from the doors of their dorm rooms. It was a distressing experience for the students, and they decided to come out in support of their names through a video, which has since gone viral. Here is the video, called Say My Name, created by Yan Huhe, one of the affected students.
In the video, Yan Huhe shared that the meaning of his name is to preach harmony, and that his parents gave this name with great hopes for his future, to make the world a better place. "It reminds me to never forget where I come from," he said.
I highly recommend to watch the video, and to learn from the positive spirit and leading example of these students when they faced this unexpected challenge.
Interestingly, I found that many of my Chinese and Korean friends have adopted Western first names for use by people outside their country, including in Asia, when they speak and correspond in English. What a friendly gesture that is, intended to make it easier to communicate and develop friendship! However, is it needed, I wonder? I like discovering their given names, even in the case when they are more difficult for me to pronounce.
Self-leadership is about aligning who you are becoming, in a positive manner, including your values, beliefs and life purpose, together with your attitude, skills, and practice. I call it developing your Personal Power. You can exercise this power regardless of any position you hold in your work and life. Developing this power is always your personal choice. Make sure that the way you use and respect your name is part of it.
Regarding the meaning of my first name Wouter—pronounced "WOW-tər"—I came across three different meanings. One is leader of the army, the second is ruler of the forest, and the third is rolling in the mud. I still wonder what the link is between the three. I like to think that the mud has to do with being grounded, and with loving nature.
A few years ago, I was also kindly given a Chinese name 林沃仁 (Lín Wò Rén) by my friends at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Interestingly 林 (Lín) refers to forest, that precious natural resource that we need to work harder for to conserve in our world today.
In wrapping this up, I have three questions for you.
First, what is in your name, what is the meaning for you?
Second, how do you treat your name in your quest to become your best?
Third, how do you respect other people's names as part of who they are?
Let's take off any masks we still wear and show the world who we are, with our name.
Let's own our name! And be confident to ask others to "Say My Name" and do so ourselves.