Comics Maz Jobrani and Aparna Nancherla On Their 'Difficult' Names: Episode 12
Aparna Nancherla and Maz Jobrani are both well-known comedians, and they're both used to people totally butchering their names.
For Jobrani, who's Iranian-American and based in Los Angeles, the a in his first name, which sounds like Mazda, often comes out like more like has, or maze. His last name becomes jabroni, which is actually a real word, a slangy wrestling term for insulting one's opponent popularized by The Rock.
As for Nancherla, who's a New York-based standup comic and Indian-American, it happens "pretty frequently," more often with her last name. "I get Nancheria a lot. People want to make it an i. I don't know why."
Both are sure people who mess up their names aren't trying to be jerks; mispronouncing a name you've never heard or seen before is totally understandable. They each have a litany of helpful hints. When meeting someone new, Nancherla might say, "'It's like a nanny in a chair singing la.' I don't know if that's useful to anyone."
Jobrani tells people his last name sounds like "the name Joe, and bra, and knee. That doesn't always work either." As for his first name — which is short for Maziar — he says, "I find an opportunity to tell them a story where I say, 'You know, when I was a kid, my dad used to say, "Listen, Maz, what you need to do is..."
And if that fails? "So then I gotta come back and find a moment when I don't sound too jerky to go, 'Listen man, not a big deal, but it's actually pronounced 'Maz.' Then I go through the whole thing: 'It's like Mazda, Mazatlan, Maserati, Lamaze..."
As someone with my own "difficult" name, I called these two up for this week's Code Switch podcast episode, to see how they navigate their careers and personal lives with names that regularly inspire mild panic.
(I've got my own schtick when meeting someone new: "Hi, I'm Tasneem. Tuss-neem. Rhymes with bus. Or like Robitussin. And neem rhymes with dream." It usually doesn't work, and that's why, over the course of a day, I'm likely to answer to Jasmine, Janine, Tazneem, Taasneem, Tamseen, or, my absolute least favorite, Taz.)
Of all the variants of "Maz" that he's heard over the years, Jobrani says the mispronunciation that really elicits the "fingernails on chalkboard" annoyance for him is the one that rhymes with has (or Taz!). "It's so American. I'm like, 'Travel the world! Put an 'ah' in there!'"
Jobrani's son is named Dhara, a Persian name that's often spelled Dara. He and his wife intentionally added an "h" in hopes that his teachers would see it and realize it doesn't rhyme with, say, Farrah Fawcett's first name.
But they didn't anticipate other kids in preschool calling him Dora, as in Dora the Explorer. "They weren't trying to be mean, they just knew Dora. And I was like, oh no, we didn't think of Dora!"
For Nancherla, the worst was maybe her middle school summer camp, when another camper misheard her during a round of introductions. "They were like, Aporna? Like porn. And then that stuck. And I was like, you got it wrong, why do you get to choose the nickname?!"
I was curious as to whether Nancherla and Jobrani consistently insist that people get it right, or sometimes just let it slide. Because for a long time, I just didn't bother. On some level, I felt that the fault was mine, for having an unreasonable name to begin with. And if a professional colleague were to mispronounce my name, or someone interviewing me for a job, forget it. As a young brown woman trying to get a foothold in the overwhelmingly white and male journalism industry, the last thing I wanted was to be seen as "difficult" or "militant" or "demanding."
Nancherla says that when other folks in the comedy scene mess up her name, it can feel harder to correct them. "If I'm meeting someone who's higher status than me, or that I'm intimidated by, it's hard to be like, 'Actually, you say my name like this.' It feels like I'm making them look back. Which is crazy because it's your name and you shouldn't feel bad about how your name is pronounced."
Jobrani may have the butchered-name story to top them all: "At my wedding, the priest messed up my name." He and his wife got married in Mexico, and while they'd make a point of going over his last name with the priest performing the ceremony, they didn't think his first name would pose a problem.
"He started, and he's like, we're here to bring together Maak and Preetha.' Everyone in the wedding looked at each other, and I just kind of smiled. He went on and on. 'So, when Maak first met Preetha...' And finally my mom was like, 'It's Maz!'"
There's some evidence that this stuff has real-world consequences beyond the personal annoyance factor. A 2014 study published in PLoS ONE found that people are less likely to trust you if they find your name hard to pronounce, and other studies have shown that immigrants in America who "Americanized" their names went on to do better in the job market and earn more money than those who didn't.
As Matti Voure, who's an immigrant himself, wrote in Scientific American, "So, you are trying to decide whether to hire Chen Meina, or Shobha Bhattacharya. If you find yourself favoring one over the other, with no information to support your intuition — or feeling of 'truthiness' — these studies suggest that one reason for your preference is that you simply find this name easier to pronounce."
I'm not pretending to have a spotless record here. I've undoubtedly mangled plenty of "difficult" names over the years. But now, I make a point of asking new acquaintances with unfamiliar names whether I'm saying their name correctly. I try to do it right away, while the handshake is still warm. If they become a friend, I might casually check in at some point down the road, and ask if I'm still doing okay. In some cases, I'll discreetly correct other folks, too, if I'm reasonably sure the name-bearer wouldn't mind my bringing it up. If I suspect they'd rather I just left it alone, I leave it alone.
Like everything else we talk about at Code Switch, there are no hard and fast rules here. Some people with "difficult" names don't mind, or even notice, when others mangle their names. Others switch back and forth over the years, or between people, so they might have one name at home and another at work, and they're totally cool with that — or at least resigned.
As for Jobrani and Nancherla, I wanted to know whether, if they could go back in time and be there at the moment their parents were picking their names, they'd suggest something "easier," more familiar or immediately accessible to people outside their own culture. Their answers were pretty great — and you should go check out this week's episode to hear what they said.