When he responded to my call with a deep, slow hello, it sounded like I roused him from sleep. I blurted out the question of whether I could speak to a world-famous comedian. Except, aside from the same last name and a shared first letter of the first name, this was not that comedian.
He laughed when I tripped back over my tongue to fix it. "Oh, it's OK. I can be him," he said pleasantly.
"No! I'm so sorry; that's terrible," I replied. "I even coached myself not to say that name before I called."
He continued to laugh, and it smoothed over, but it was a reminder of how important names are to the back and forth of a conversation. Depending on the level of maltreatment of a name, the conversation can go downhill.
An NPR article, "Why Pronouncing Names Correctly Is More Than Common Courtesy," explains how people with unconventional names struggle their entire lives with the lack of respect they get when people mispronounce their names.
When I met my husband, who's Mexican, I didn't have the correct pronunciation either. His name has a breathy beginning, a sound we lack in our American speech. Once I tried overcompensating with some similar, if more heavy-handed, German diction, I slowly gained familiarity with his name and him.
Something similar happened with my name. When we went to his parents' house at first, they were awkward because "Cassie" sounds and looks like the word "casi," Spanish for "almost." I don't blame them because the joke writes itself: I was almost his girlfriend. (Jaja!)
His mom did her best to fix the situation by calling me by my full name, which makes me wince because that's what I get from my mom when I'm in trouble, and because the vowel sounds in German and Spanish are incredibly similar. But we had the same problem in my German family, and my name was transmuted into "Kessie." Since I grew up with that, it became an extension of me.
When my husband came to live on this side of the border, after being trapped by my witty charm and diamond-in-the-rough beauty, one of the things people seemed determined he should lose was his name. People would outright call him by the name that his name translates to in English (think Juan to John). He waved it off most of the time in the beginning. I could understand that; I get Kathy nearly 90% of the time because I mumble and don't hiss my S's.
But when his boss asked to put that wrong name on his business card, I about lost my mind, slapping my hand on our kitchen table and yelling about identity as he sat wide-eyed across from me.
I summoned up the same pent-up rage for a fruitless situation that happened when we got married.
In American culture, many women still change their last name when they get married. I didn't want to. I wasn't a doctor, and I didn't have any reputation to herald, but my last name connected me to my mom — who had changed her name — and my dad — who had died. I would have multiple discussions in front of my fiance about what it means to change your identity and get swallowed up by — I'd take a dramatic pause — the patriarchy. After rolling his eyes, he'd try to interject, "You don't —," and I'd carry on caterwauling.
This lasted until one lucid evening when he got a word in edgewise and explained that it was my culture that was weird. "Women don't lose their name when they get married where I come from, and I'm not asking you for that," he said.
Now we have a hodgepodge of names in our house, our kids carrying both of our last names. I wonder about the respect that will demand from society someday. "One day," I've told my daughter, "you'll know who is truly your friend by whether they get your name right."
Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma (sorry, Cassie) and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate.