Kristin Hoku Okumura is a physical therapist with Infinity Rehab, a division of the Avamere Family of Companies. Avamere values diversity, equity, and inclusion, corporate social responsibility, and employee engagement. We are dedicated to diverse voices within our teams and a culture of inclusiveness. Here, Hoku shares her thoughts on the benefits of attending to someone’s name.
What’s in a Name?
“Horseshoe, you have a call on Park 1. Horseshoe, Park 1.” Three facility-wide announcements later, it dawned on me- the phone call was for me. I felt the heat creep up my neck as I dashed to the phone- the sooner I got there, the fewer times it would echo down the corridors.
My name is Kristin Tamiko Hokuli’ili’i Okumura. Since I was a kid, my parents have called me by my middle name, Hoku. I once asked my Mom why she gave me the first name Kristin if they didn’t intend to use it. She said, “I wanted you to have an English name if you applied for a job as a lawyer in Connecticut.” (Surprisingly specific, Mom.) She knew that “Hoku” would be less likely to be called for an interview or considered for a promotion. She wanted to give me all the same opportunities that “Kristin” would have.
Since leaving my native Hawai’i for college in Indiana and Kentucky, I have been called many variations of Hoku. In my youth, I accepted all pronunciations. I even minimized it myself, saying, “You can call me whatever you want.” In an attempt to ease the burden on my colleagues and patients, I discarded part of my identity. I distanced myself from my heritage and made an accommodation for the convenience of others. To this day, I agonize over when it is appropriate to correct a co-worker or more difficult still, a patient. When has that window closed? Is it worth the awkward exchange if I will only encounter this person once or twice? What do I do when they introduce me incorrectly to the rest of the team?
It’s normal to be stumped by the pronunciation of an unfamiliar name – it happens to me often (I see you, Aoife O’Donovan). And I agree – it can be awkward to pause a conversation to ask someone to repeat their name.
But it turns out there’s quite a lot in a name, including family, tradition, and identity. And I promise that your investment of time to pronounce theirs correctly will be appreciated. Educators have, in recent years, been advocating for the correct pronunciation of students’ names. They have found that students with frequently mispronounced names often carry them as a burden, constantly weighing the cost and benefits of correcting their peers and authority figures. These students often begin to distance themselves from their identity and culture, further isolating them from their peers.
Thanks to a growing body of study, we know that health outcomes are also strongly impacted by cultural sensitivity. We know that by considering and identifying social factors, we are providing better care. Take a moment to consider the value of this for our patients. In a time of extreme turmoil and isolation for our patients, imagine the impact we can have by recognizing their identity and honoring their cultural heritage. Might your patient be empowered to report new symptoms to you if they feel that you are truly listening? Might they be encouraged to share details about their physical and social environments if they know that you’re ready to learn? And consider the impact on your work relationships. Might your colleagues be emboldened to share their cultural insights about a shared patient if they hear your openness? Might they be encouraged to share details about their experiences if they feel that you value their background? I think so.
Consider the many benefits of taking a few extra moments to really attend to someone’s name. Listen for the accents and inflections. Listen for the roundness or sharpness of the vowels. Practice. Never ask if they have an easier nickname unless they offer it. Show them that their dignity and identity is worth the effort. Because, really, there’s a lot in a name.