The Name Game

You know how you’re at a gathering of some kind (say at a really great party, or at a reception following your induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Okay, let’s be realistic … how many of us have actually been to a really great party? So, let’s just pretend you’re walking down the street) and you meet a new person who introduces themself* to you?

Right at that moment I start panicking, because I’m pretty sure I’ll never remember their name and equally as sure that I’ll see them again in an hour. And they’ll walk up and say, “hello again, Nikki” and I’ll be all …

Sometimes I think I remember someone’s name, and I want to say it to them so that they’ll be flattered by the fact that I remembered them, but then I’m petrified because what if I’m wrong? I’ve tried muttering it under my breath before only to have them totally blow my cover with a very loud, “WHAT?

Or the other day, I was so proud of myself for remembering a couple’s names … but forgot the actual people they belonged to. So when I said “Hi Steve and Bobbie” to two people who were not Steve and Bobbie, it became clear to me that remembering the name isn’t all that matters.

Many, many times I’ve met a person and their dog, and the only name I can remember when I see them again is “Sniffy Longdroppings” and for a moment I’ll be paralyzed thinking … “ugh, but what was the dog’s name?”

Yes, remembering names is really hard, and it’s not just something that happens as you get older. In fact, according to Dr. Charan Ranganath, the director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California, Davis, the simplest explanation for why we forget names so easily is … get ready for it …

… we’re just not that interested.

“People are better at remembering things that they’re motivated to learn,” says Dr. Ranganath. And even when we think we are motivated to remember, we often “underestimate the work necessary to remember something as seemingly simple as a name.”

People are better at remembering things that they’re motivated to learn

So, just how much work is involved? Lets’ see …

The “Grandmaster of Memory” Kevin Horsley, says that distraction is the reason we can’t remember names, and that if we “make compelling associations that stick in the mind like a TV commercial jingle” we’ll solve the problem. “[p]erhaps the best way for you to remember the name ‘Scott Morrison’ (Prime Minister of Australia) is by picturing a Scottish terrier chasing the Doors’ Jim Morrison” he recommends.

Evidently, experts say you can link the name with anything, literally anything, you already know. Researchers at Emory University determined that attaching a visual cue, like a unique facial or body feature, to their name can help improve name recall success by up to 69%. One example Vanessa Van Edwards gives in her video, “How to Remember Anyone’s Name” is to remember the name “Marilee” (whose picture she shows in the video) by her beautiful smile, her teeth with the double “ee” sound … so teeth … sounds like “eee” and she has a nice smile, so, teeth = Marliee.

Or associate their name with something it rhymes with. Say you meet someone named “Bob” – well, you can rhyme that with “rob” and picture your new friend Bob with a gun in his hand and a Zorro mask on his face, robbing a bank.

The problem for me is that I remember the association and not the name! I’ll have no trouble remembering “Jim Morrison,” “Teeth,” and “Zorro,” but the actual names they are associated with? Gone.

Another motivating tip is to imagine you’ll get $100,000 for remembering the name of the next person you meet. Or, you could repeat the name of the person a few times – like when you meet them, maybe once during the conversation, and again when you leave.

Many memory experts recommend repeating the names of all of the people you’ve met at the end of the day.

And that’s a big problem for me. Because if I have just spent a WHOLE DAY meeting new people I am way too emotionally exhausted to repeat anything except the names I was clearly VERY motivated to learn a long time ago: like “Peppermint Pattie, Orville Redenbacher, Baby Ruth, and Margarita.”


BTW, I spent waaaaay too much time trying to figure out whether to use “themselves” or “themself” in this case. For those of you who may wonder why I settled on “themself” please enjoy these references:

Photo by blogmonkey from FreeImages

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