Published in FT Creative Business, 24 July 2001

People have been mispronouncing, misspelling, mangling, contorting and unintentionally distorting my name for as long as I can remember. And I must admit that it hasn’t, until recently, bothered me in the slightest.

I wasn’t annoyed when, at a dinner party last Christmas, an elderly gentleman spent a whole evening calling me “Sadman”. I wasn’t annoyed when my physics teacher at school decided to amuse himself by calling me “Saddam” for the duration of the Gulf war. And I wasn’t annoyed when George Michael’s manager responded to an inquiry with a fax addressed to “Samantha”.

Indeed, some of the more spectacular errors have been quite entertaining. Recently I have had a series of press releases addressed to “Bathman”, I have had a PR person from an investment bank call the office to ask if she could talk to a certain “Satan Sinatra”, and, after two years at the FT, I have a colleague who still calls me “Satnan” – making me sound like something ordered as a side-dish at a curry house.

None of this has caused me particular distress because I recognise the simple fact that my name is difficult. I sometimes get the simplest names wrong myself and even my dad, who had the responsibility of registering my name when I was born, slipped up. There are thousands of Sikhs called “Satnam”, but as far as I know I’m the only one called “Sathnam”.

Given that my name itself contains a spelling mistake, it would, I used to think, be pretty silly if I started correcting people all the time. Besides, regularised spelling of names is something of a modern vanity: Shakespear(e) spelt his name in three different ways and in Ireland there are families of up to six people buried in adjacent graves that have six different spellings of one family name.

Why worry about misspelling or mispronunciation, so long as we know what something means? Does it really matter? Well, I didn’t think it was important at all until I came across the writings of James R Rosenfield, a US direct marketing guru who emphasises, at length, the importance of getting names right.

He believes that it is critical that direct marketers spell people’s names correctly. It is important because personalised letters, with correct spelling, makes people feel warm and fuzzy, he says. It’s important because people’s names are “icons”, or “visual units” that “inevitably and involuntarily” attract the eye.

“People’s eyes are attracted by their names, which is why personalisation is such an important direct mail technique,” he writes in Direct Marketing Magazine. “It’s a powerful way of engaging the brain’s right hemisphere. The problem is that… a mangled name gets things off to a terrible start. All sorts of negative feelings get kicked into gear: a sense of things being out of control, a feeling that you’re being abused by technology, a feeling of violation. And also a feeling that you’re getting junk mail.”

Although terms such as “abused” and “violation” are a little hysterical, and although the argument relates very specifically to direct marketing, where getting names wrong has huge financial implications (the UK’s Direct Marketing Association estimates that mailing out-of-date names and addresses costs the industry #95m a year), Rosenfield makes a point that is valid on a broader level.

When someone gets your name completely wrong – especially when that someone works in a communications business such as marketing, public relations or journalism – it creates a very negative impression. It suggests that the someone is not entirely confident about what he or she is doing.

The public relations industry, in my experience, seems to be particularly unaware of the fact that getting names wrong can reflect badly both on the PR and the clients. For instance, when the PR people behind April’s E-Commerce Expo in Birmingham sent me a name tag for “Fathnam Fanghera” my first thought wasn’t, “hey, what a great bunch of people, I must go to that”. It was, “hey, what a useless bunch of morons, I really must avoid that at all costs”.

At its worst, this kind of distortion of “difficult”, non-English names suggests profound cultural ignorance. Many Channel 4 viewers with unconventional names no doubt sympathised with Narinder, one of this year’s Big Brother contestants, when she grew increasingly annoyed with the fact that all the housemates kept on getting her name wrong. “Haven’t they ever met an Asian person before?” she whinged.

And while I have, in the past, been very happy to be called Fatman or Batnan, and while I once even allowed a PR to call me “Sam for short” because he had difficulty pronouncing my name, like Narinder I intend, from now on, to make a point of pedantically correcting everyone who gets my name wrong. And that includes my dad.

Copyright Financial Times