Why misspelling a name is a big deal

I was 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 in 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 (2016) 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 (i.e. Sarah, Paul, Ashley) or incorrectly (i.e. Saruh, Pawl, Ashlee) and then watched to see how each person disposed of their cup.

Cups with misspelled names were recycled less

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

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.”

Our name is central to our identity, and so mucking it up means you are attacking people are their core.

I’ll be honest, when a client with whom I have corresponded 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. Goodness knows, I don’t get it right all the time either, but the lesson from the research is that small courtesies like getting someone’s name right make a big difference.  If you happen to realise your mistake, apologise as soon as possible. “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, “Spell my name, spell my name, if you want my business, make damn sure you do this”.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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