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30 May 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 4:52am

Why British awkwardness can make it tough having a foreign name

From being given a curious stare to having your CV overlooked, having an ethnic name can bring out the worst in British awkwardness.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its reaction this week to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey results, concluding that racial prejudice is “bad economics”. The piece also remarks upon a DWP study that showed people with “names associated with ethnic minority groups” were almost a third less likely to be called for a job interview than someone with a ‘White British’ name.

In fact, there are examples of people changing the name they put at the top of their CVs in order to aid them in their job hunts. Only last year, Virgin Atlantic was taken to an employment tribunal by a man called Max Kpakio, who claimed they had turned him down because of his name, as they accepted him when he reapplied under the name “Craig Owen”. (Although he eventually lost the tribunal, because he’d changed more than just his name on the second application).

As someone without a ‘White British’ name – though, as it’s Armenian, I suppose it is the very definition of Caucasian – this brought to mind the various implications of having a foreign name in modern Britain. Among decent people, these are mainly socially awkward, often superficial, repercussions, but it’s easy to see how they could filter up to a prospective employer’s mindset. It’s the British propensity for wanting an easy life. A seemingly innocuous, often endearing attitude. But not when it means avoiding someone because their name’s a bit funny.

First, pronunciation. This is a factor that plays out a splurge of Britain’s neuroses in one botched jumble of syllables. Working out how to converse with a stranger, while constantly feeling on the brink of offending them. With different accents involved. It’s just one big two-way apology.

Because if we’re going to start a conversation with someone new – already a highly unsavoury idea for many of us, let’s admit – a supposedly difficult name makes this minefield even trickier to navigate. And then we have to make sure we remember the name in question, as it would be unthinkable to slip into terms of endearment (“Mate”) or the weird gender-political mess of “Sir” and “Miss” – these options are conveniently anonymous, but too despicable to contemplate for a decent professional human person.

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And then once you’ve met someone with a foreign name – particularly if you’ve read it rather than heard it from the scary, cosmopolitan horse’s mouth – how to ensure you pronounce it correctly? We couldn’t possibly ask. That would require a potentially awkward conversational opener. So people generally just go for it, eyes forward, resolutely spluttering through each impossible syllable, or avoid the issue completely.

I’ve encountered this problem of politeness in all sorts of contexts: missing a doctor’s appointment for not recognising my mispronounced name being called; a family I stayed with on holiday consistently calling me “Louche” for the entirety of my stay (when I hadn’t once lounged on their chaise longue); the presenter on Radio 5 Live soldiering through an interview repeatedly addressing me as “Anoosh Shake-a-Line”. Which is not how it’s pronounced, but meant a more amusing 10.45pm weekday news slot for my listening friends, at least.

Essentially, it’s the conversational equivalent of when BBC newsreaders take a deep breath and just power through those ambiguously pronounced names that crop up from time to time. Boko Haram. Sven-Goran Eriksson. Gaddafi. Farage.

But mispronunciation isn’t the biggest problem. It’s usually by the politically correct and polite people who just want to say your name with minimal fuss; their hearts are in the right place, even if their diphthongs aren’t. No. It’s the “oo-er, that’s exotic” aspect that’s worse. Because introduce yourself to someone with perhaps more Ukippy credentials than you’d hope, and you’ll usually receive the response:

“So where are you from?”

To which I take great pleasure in replying “London”, and watching them nod bemusedly, their eyes betraying insurmountable confusion that I haven’t regaled them apologetically with tales of a journey from the harsh plains of Anatolia to Zone 3.

These irritating, occasionally vaguely xenophobic, social implications of having a foreign name in Britain aren’t nearly as bad as being declined for a job interview on account of it. But it’s worth remembering that awkwardness in conversation could easily translate to awkwardness in considering CVs. And that, mate, is discrimination.

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