05 Mar 2014

The John Travolta Effect on Economic Development

Anatalio Ubalde is an economic developer, entrepreneur, and inventor. He works with organizations throughout the nation to foster enhanced economic development strategies using Internet technology. His work in geographic information systems, economic development and the Internet has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, The New York Times, TechCrunch, and Inc. In 2009 he was named a Fellow Member of the International Economic Development Council for achieving exceptional stature in the field of economic development.

One of the more notable moments of the 2014 Academy Awards was John Travolta’s attempt to introduce Idina Menzel by mispronouncing her name as “Adele Dazeem”.  Menzel then performed the Oscar-winning Best Original Song “Let it go” (which I guess is what she also had to do in the moment before her song) from the animated musical Frozen.

Travolta’s flub made the mainstream news, the late night comedy shows hosted by Conan and Jimmy Fallon, and the meme inspired numerous parodies on social media as well as The Adele Dazeem Name Generator to “Travoltify” your name. I tried it and mine was Aleksander Edbrards.

I, too, have been at the pinnacle awards event for my profession of economic development and publicly had my name similarly butchered before I received my award. More on that later.

If your name is James, Mary or any of the most popular US names, people probably never mess up the pronunciation of your name. However, if your name is Idina Menzel or Anatalio Ubalde it happens more often. In my case, it usually happens at least weekly. For example this happened in a Linkedin post from yesterday:

Keep in mind that my name was spelled out exactly in the comment before Michael thanked “me”. I recognize that Michael has the 4th most popular name in the USA in the last 100 years and I don’t, but just copying and pasting my name in a response seems like very little effort. This happens to me all the time.  

One of the more public mispronunciations of my name occurred when I received IEDC’s New Economic Developer of the Year award. I invited a number of my friends and family members to share in this joyous recognition. During my introduction of achievements for the award my name was apparently supposed to be read a number of times, and not once was it pronounced correctly and not once was the mispronunciation the same. There were letters added that are not even in my name.

If you saw the video of Travolta mispronouncing Menzel’s name and it made you squirm, that’s how all my friends, family, and everyone in the room who knew me were feeling, except my “name” kept getting repeated over and over. There was literally groaning at my table.

I try to have a good sense of humor about this and when I came up to give my acceptance speech said, “I don’t know who this Anrebo Ugdudube guy is, but he sounds fantastic and I would like to meet him some day.” Extended applause and laughing followed, which I think was the entire room’s catharsis as they released their own discomfort from listening to the introduction (and, perhaps, watching me listen to the introduction).

Names Matter in Economic Development

Your name matters to you. It’s part of your identity. Medical research shows people’s brains are more engaged when you say their name. Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People encourages people to remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

As economic developers we are going to increasingly meet people with names we are unfamiliar with. This is going to happen due to demographic changes in the country and you can see that with fast growing names like Mateo, Gustavo, Hector, Emilia, and Elliana. Its is also going to happen because economic development is a global profession and the economic health of your local community is going to be increasingly tied to working with companies headquartered in other countries and continents.

Based on the popularity of names globally you are almost certainly going to have business meetings with men named Santiago, Pedro, Mohamed, Leonardo, Mustafa, Wei, Bo, Aarav, Ali, Hiroto, Noam, Onni, Yerasyl, and women named Valentina, Manuela, Ximena, Ai, Jing, Yuina, Freja, Renata, Boglarka, Fatima, Zeynep, Lamija, and Sigrun.

If people you are trying to do business with have the undesirable experience and personal discomfort that comes from you mispronouncing their name, what do you think the likelihood is that you are going to make a good first impression that leads to economic investment in your community?

Realistically, you’re going to goof up some pronunciations. But here are three very easy things you can do to get started getting names right:

  1. 1. If it’s in print, copy the name letter by letter. Try the copy-and-paste feature on your computer. It’s that simple.

  2. 2. At least try to pronounce their name based on the letters you read and do it in the order those letters come. Your chances of getting it right go up a lot by doing this.

  3. 3. Ask someone who knows how to pronounce the name of the person you are going to speak with how to pronounce that person’s name. This might be a colleague in common to both of you. 

I said previously that I try to have a good sense of humor about my name being mispronounced so I'll leave you with some laughs watching a guy in a job interview mispronounce his potential boss' name

Anatalio Ubalde is Co-Founder of GIS Planning, ZoomProspector.com, and SizeUp. His name is pronounced "On-uh-Tall-E-O Ew-bald-ay".


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