Why misspelling a name is more of a problem than you realise

Misspelling names

 I was recently having a pleasant exchange via LinkedIn with one of my past managers when something interrupted my enjoyment: she spelt my name wrong.

Granted, spelling my name ‘Bri’ is not as common as ‘Bree’, or even the fromage-inspired ‘Brie’, but having worked with me and, indeed, my name being right there on my profile, means she should have known better.

Is it a big deal?

Yes. Paying attention to small details like a name can change behaviour in very real ways. It can mean a customer doesn’t do business with you or a recruiter doesn’t take your call. It can even change how people recycle, as some researchers discovered.

Trudel, Argo and Meng were interested in the impact misspelling a name had on how people discarded a paper cup. Inviting a group of volunteers to rate the quality of drinking water, the researchers either spelled the participant’s name correctly (such as ‘Sarah’, ‘Paul’ and ‘Ashley’) or incorrectly (such as ‘Saruh’,’Pawl’ and ‘Ashlee’) and then watched to see how each person disposed of their cup.

Interestingly, 48% of those whose names were spelled correctly recycled their cup, whereas only 24% of people whose name was incorrect did so. And those who received a cup with no name on it at all were just as bad, with only 26% recycling their cup.

What’s this about?

Identity bias. According to the researchers, “the presence, strength, and valence of an identity causes consumers to treat functionally similar everyday products differently during disposal. Further, we find that consumers are more likely to recycle a product linked to the self because trashing such a product creates an identity threat.”

Or in other words, our name is central to our identity, and so mucking it up means you are attaching people at their core.

I’ll be honest, when a client I have corresponded with misspells my name, a little bit of my desire to work with them dies. It shows they do not care about forging a respectful connection with me. Goodness knows, I don’t get it right all the time either, but the lesson to take from the research is that small courtesies like getting someone’s name right can make a huge difference.

If you misspell someones name, and happen to realise your mistake, apologise as soon as possible. Saying ‘I’m so sorry, I just realised I spelled your name wrong’ will do wonders to smooth over a festering resentment.

With apologies to Destiny’s Child for rewriting one of their hits, “Spell my name, spell my name, if you want my business, make damn sure you do this”.


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Mandla Ngcobo
Mandla Ngcobo
9 months ago

Great article.