There are simple but meaningful ways to help establish strong relationships when first interacting with others, whether in the classroom, the office, or beyond the walls of our campuses.
Though there are so many things to leave to the moment when first acknowledging and recognizing someone, one thing is paramount: Having great first interactions involves valuing others’ names and pronouns, and it makes a world of difference. I know from firsthand experience.
As a graduate student at Virginia Tech, I often worked long hours in a shared space with colleagues from my program in the college of business. After reviewing reams of data for my research late one evening, I left the office, began the drive home, and was promptly stopped by a local police officer. I shared my identifying information as the officer began his routine examination. What wasn’t routine, though, was that after reviewing my information and being told—by me—that my name was James, the officer continued to knowingly refer to me as John.
I’ve been regarded as Jim and John, even though I’ve politely (and impolitely) established my name. I can also recall mostly fond memories of time spent with my grandfather when different individuals degradingly spoke to him as boy. Black men of my generation and many more from older generations have similar stories to tell, and today, many from the LGBTQ+ community find themselves in situations of a similar nature. What the police officer in my own experience and what some individuals today don’t recognize is how it feels to be misacknowledged. It’s humiliating and infuriating, and sometimes, the more you think about it, the more confusing and confounding it becomes.
That’s because our established names and pronouns reflect our family histories as well as who we are as individuals—our unique experiences and perspectives and the challenges we’ve overcome. Correctly acknowledging individuals according to these identifiers promotes respect for people as they are while honoring their very backstories. Equally important, because being misidentified adversely affects how one sees themselves and their contributions to community and society, respectful usage honors people’s hopes and dreams and their pursuit of self-determination and self-respect.
Honest mistakes will happen in our daily interactions. I’m prone to them myself, and I hope those of us who err without intent will be afforded the right to learn and grow from our mistakes. Making the most of our interactions is important, so much so that we don’t often take time to realize the alternatives.
Take the time when the next opportunity presents itself, and flourish in all your interactions.
James C. Wimbush,
Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs
IUB Interim Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion
Johnson Chair for Diversity and Leadership
Professor of Business Administration