I have been a sailor for more than 30 years. Every day, I have the privilege of working with a diverse group of people who are just as dedicated to serving as I am. While we differ in our formative experiences and outlooks, we are all committed to the oath we took (and periodically reaffirm) to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Mine is not what most would think of as a “traditional” diversity issue like race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But it highlights how the choices we make when dealing with differences can either be inclusive or marginalizing to our teammates.
My name is difficult to pronounce. My heritage is Persian, from a Middle Eastern country (Iran) that has poor relations with the United States. My father named me in the proud traditions of our culture. An approximate translation of my first name is “Saturn” and my last name is “descended from philosophers.” My parents spelled my name phonetically in English. To most Americans, it looks like an intimidating jumble of letters. I first realized my name would be an issue for me in middle school. In 1979, my family fled the Iranian revolution and immigrated to the United States. Overnight, I went from being “one of the crowd” at my old school to the “foreign kid” in the new one. Even though I looked and spoke like everyone else, I had enough bad encounters as a teen to know that working around my difficult-to-pronounce name would be a big part of my life experience.
In the years that followed, I have realized that a person’s name—like their race, gender, or sexual orientation—has real power. Our names (usually given by someone else) have intrinsic value. They are a connection to our past, our history, and our culture. How a name is used either lifts us up or breaks us down, and how a leader handles a difficult-to-pronounce name can reveal a lot about their character. Here, I offer several examples that bookend my career to demonstrate this point.
Respect and Professionalism
I enlisted in the Navy at 19. Recruit training was my first example of the professional benefits of embracing differences. I had two first class petty officer recruit division commanders (RDCs). They were both doing what was (and still is) one of the hardest jobs in Navy—molding roughly 80 young civilians into sailors in a very short time. The first RDC I encountered was a huge and intimidating aviation structural mechanic. He took one look at my name and promptly announced that he was not even going to try to say it. He was going to call me “Yamaha” instead. While I did not realize it at the time, that dismissive act was all it took for him to lose my respect. To this day, my impression of him is of a shortsighted bully marking time in the RDC job. He is the prototype of a bad leader to me.
The second RDC, a shorter but equally intimidating machinist’s mate, took several minutes out from stressing my many failings as a new recruit to ask me how to pronounce my name. While I did so, he was looking at my nametag and sounding it out. That small act changed my life. That RDC took pride in being able to pronounce my name and almost by default started calling for me to take on increasing positions of responsibility within the division. Over the next couple of months, he asked about my heritage, how I did in high school, and what I wanted to do in the Navy.
At graduation, he came over, shook my father’s hand, and said his name with perfect pronunciation. My father was so proud that he informed me the Navy was where I belonged and that I was going to retire as a sailor! That RDC displayed great leadership well beyond learning my name and started a chain of events that led to me finding my reason for being. Within two years of this experience, I applied for a commissioning program, and embarked on a career that led to command of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
In the years that followed, my name has been a part of many personal and professional experiences. Whether good or bad, each of these experiences influenced me and formed my identity. The good ones taught me the value of respect, of embracing difference, and how small acts of dignity form leaders. The bad gave me an insight into people who are lazy thinkers and use low humor or casual bigotry to avoid the work of having character. I do not worry too much about those people. They are not worth my time and focus.
Fast-forward twenty-eight years from recruit training. I was the newly reported executive officer (XO) of an aircraft carrier on the west coast. As usual, there was the murmuring undercurrent among the 3,000-person crew of “how do you say the new guy’s name?” By this time, I had come up with a pretty good routine of using my rank and my aviator call sign, which is a shortened version of my last name, when talking about myself.
Throughout my career, I have learned that this tactic eliminates uncomfortable pauses as someone struggles to say my name while interacting with me. Many Americans with diverse names often take these kinds of shortcuts. Usually as a matter of convenience, people with names that are difficult to pronounce in English like Vedant or Akbar take on common American first names like “Victor” or “Alex.” I have experienced this along with several friends and shipmates and, when asked about it, we all agree it is just the easiest thing to do.
However, that was not acceptable to the brilliant mass communications specialists (MCs) on the ship. During my second week on board, two young and very brave petty officers came by and asked to film a series of short clips of me saying my last name in different locations around the ship. Of course, I was curious about why they wanted the clips, and they told me it was for a morale-building “project” for the crew.
What resulted was a video of the MCs doing “man on the street” interviews with sailors around the ship. They would show the sailors my name and ask them to try and pronounce it, and between every effort, they popped in the clip of me saying my name. The film was well edited and the contrast between some of the creative sailor pronunciations and me saying it turned out to be both fun and hilarious. The video was a hit on the ship’s TV and became a regular part of the indoctrination course for new sailors. When it was released on YouTube, I started getting compliments from family members all over the country. It was a fantastic and creative way to make the crew and me comfortable with the “name issue.” To this day, sailors from that ship will stop me, pronounce my name correctly, and remind me they learned how to say it from the video. This remains one of my fondest Navy experiences and a great example of embracing differences with humor and goodwill. Those MCs stepped up as leaders. I am grateful to them and will never forget them.
In opposition to that experience was an incident a few years later during my command tour. It was a clear example of lazy thinking and breaking someone down as a default choice. Shortly after I assumed command, I gained a bit of notoriety as the first Iranian American to command an aircraft carrier. The fact that the ship was soon set to deploy to the Middle East increased that attention. There was even a New York Times article that covered my immigrant story. By the time the ship left on deployment, everyone onboard knew my name and heritage.
One night, a couple of months into deployment, the junior aviators on the ship put together a foc’sle follies. For the uninitiated, foc’sle follies is a time-honored tradition in carrier aviation during which the all the aviators and various staffs onboard come together to recognize those with the top landing grades for the preceding underway line period. There are songs and skits, and—if the mood is right—follies can turn into a fun event where everyone gets a chance to blow off some steam. An important aspect of follies is the tradition of “roasting” the senior officers onboard. Besides being funny, this roasting serves the additional purpose of providing leadership important feedback on habits or quirks they might not otherwise recognize in themselves. I have always loved this tradition.
As the ship’s captain, I caught my fair share of the roasting. Every critique from “he talks way too much on the ship’s intercom” to hilarious bits about bad food and lack of sleep was well founded. All was fine until one junior officer who was struggling to wrap up a “joke” he was telling about me, blurted out something along the lines of “. . . I mean, lighten up, Xerxes!” It was clear to many in the room that he was making a racial reference to an unflattering portrayal of the Persian emperor protagonist in the movie 300. When stuck trying to finish a joke to impress his peers, this young officer chose to aim low and went for my name and heritage.
At this point, let me assure the reader that I have been around long enough to have a very thick skin when it comes to these sorts of experiences. Although disappointed, I was not hurt by this comment. I have heard similar ones too many times before. What was more interesting to me was my reaction in that moment. Right after he said it, the crowd went silent, and several people looked at me for a reaction. Making a choice that I am still unsure about, I just gave a slight chuckle, everyone exhaled, and the festivities continued. Thinking back, I wonder what impact my reaction may have had on someone else in the room. Should I have called out the perpetrator? Was I perpetuating the same lazy leadership I have found lacking in others? This incident proved to me that everyone (myself included) knows what “right” looks like when it comes to embracing our differences. But in the spirit of getting real and getting better, we all have work to do.
Looking back, I understand that as a Navy, embracing our differences is imperative if we want to win the next fight. When the Chief of Naval Operations updated the Charge of Command in January 2022, he captured this imperative when he tasked us to “be relentless in building a culture of the highest character . . .” At the heart of this charge is the need to “acknowledge the value of every sailor and civilian . . . embrace diversity of thought and background” and “foster inclusion and connectedness.” Taking a few extra minutes to learn to pronounce a shipmate’s name correctly is a good start.