On remembering and dealing with people's names
January 2009 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
Accurately remembering names is one of the simplest yet most important components of interacting with people, no matter in what capacity. This article presents some tips I've acquired over the years with regards to remembering and using people's names.
Accurately remembering names is one of the simplest yet most important components of interacting with people, no matter in what capacity. A person's own name is the single most important word to him/her; it is intimately tied to his/her identity as an individual. How you deal with people's names can have a profound effect on their impressions of you: Think about the times you've felt special when someone you admired addressed you by your name in a sincere tone; or think about the times when you've felt belittled when someone negligently called you by the wrong name, or worse, maliciously made fun of your name in front of you.
This article presents some tips I've acquired over the years with regards to remembering and using people's names. There are many far more reputable professionals who have written about this topic, so I am not claiming that my tips are novel. However, such professional 'human interaction gurus' are often targeting their advice to a business-minded audience, giving tips on how to socially network, schmooze, or otherwise impress people at work. In contrast, I am writing based upon my own experiences growing up as a technically-minded kid without much in terms of schmoozing or popularity-acquiring skills, so hopefully other nerds and geeks can better relate to my advice.
Tip 1: DO remember someone's name the FIRST time he/she tells it to you
Here is the most important tip of this article, so pay attention!
Unless you're the Unabomber (or some other hermit living in isolation), you will have to make hundreds or even thousands of introductions to strangers throughout your lifetime. Like death and taxes, personal introductions simply cannot be avoided, so it's wise to remember the most crucial bit of information that comes out of them: the other person's name.
Unfortunately, most of us totally forget the other person's name as soon as the introduction is over. Here is how a typical scenario plays out:
This has happened to me dozens of times, and it still continues to happen, although less frequently now that I'm more conscientious about remembering people's names. The main lesson here is that if you don't make an active effort to remember someone's name the first time he/she tells it to you, then it's really difficult for you to get another chance to do so.
One simple way to elide this awkwardness is to later ask a friend who knows Sasha to remind you of her name. But I feel that a better way is to try your hardest to remember names the first time around. Let's revisit our same introduction scenario again:
With some practice, you'll notice that you will become much better at remembering people's names, without appearing at all awkward.
Tip 2: DO make extra efforts to learn foreign-sounding or unconventional names
Most people you'll meet will have conventional-sounding names, like Steve or Rachel (if you live in America). However, you will inevitably meet people with unconventional, foreign-sounding, or hard-to-pronounce names (with respect to your home culture). These folks are used to people forgetting or botching up their names, so you will make an extra good impression if you can accurately recall their names. It's obviously harder for Americans to remember a name like Ramachandran than George, but that's not an excuse for not trying.
My main advice here is to (apologetically) ask the other person to repeat and clarify how exactly to pronounce their name: "Sorry, I can't hear too well with this noise in the background. Could you repeat how to pronounce your name? Thanks" These people are used to having to repeat or clarify their names, so they likely won't mind, especially when you are meeting them for the first time. Don't worry at all about how to accurately spell their names, but rather focus on making up a phonetic spelling that's easy to remember. For a name like Chakravarty, you could think to yourself, "CHALK - AHHH - VAR - TY, rhymes with party" And when you address them by their names again, you can ask for them to repeat it a few times, with something like "Pardon, did I pronounce it correctly? I want to make sure I get it right." At the very least, they will appreciate that you are making an effort.
Tip 3: DON'T make any remarks about people's unconventional names
Everyone with a foreign-sounding name probably remembers being teased as a kid in school over his/her name, so such insensitive behavior during adulthood (even if not maliciously intended) can bring back less-than-fond memories.
You risk sounding ignorant, xenophobic, and bigoted if you make dismissive or insensitive remarks about people's names that happen to be unconventional by your local definition. For example, "Boy, those Asian names are so hard to remember! Sheesh, I can deal with Dave or Mike, but Yamamoto, damn!". Or even something as innocuous as "Whoa, that's pretty weird-soundin', dude! Where did that come from?!?" Even if you don't actively intend to be prejudiced, such statements make you sound so. This is especially true if you're a member of the majority group, i.e., a white person in America.
Remember, in most countries, your name sounds weird!
Tip 4: DON'T call people by nicknames or alternative forms of their names if they haven't first sanctioned it
Play it safe by always addressing someone by the exact name he/she used when introducing him/herself. Hearing someone call you by an unsanctioned nickname or name variant can be mentally jarring, since you're simply not used to responding to it. Even worse, it shows disrespect and arrogance on the part of the caller, since he/she seems to be asserting the right to modify your own name in front of you. Someone named Robert might not want others calling him Rob or Bob or Bobby-boy, or might have reserved those variants only for use by close friends or family members.
This action becomes even more offensive and bigoted when the other person has a foreign name. For example, if you meet someone named Katsuyami but you say something like, "God damn! What a weird-soundin' name! How 'bout I call you Kat instead? You cool with that, kid?" What an insult!
Tip 5: DO use people's names occasionally in conversation, and especially when saying hello and goodbye
Once you remember someone's name, the great thing about using it in conversation is that it can develop better rapport (since everyone likes hearing their name) and can also help you remember it even better. Of course, it's gratuitous and phony-sounding to preface every sentence with mention of a name, but I've found that you should at least use names when saying hello and goodbye to enter and exit with a pleasant impression, respectively.
Tip 6: DON'T ever call people by the wrong name
Hearing your name mispronounced can be annoying but forgivable, especially if lots of people find your name hard to pronounce, but hearing someone call you by the wrong name is always infuriating! Out of all facts that someone can possibly misremember about you (e.g., your job, college major, or ethnicity), getting your name wrong is the ultimate insult. It simply leaves a yucky visceral impression that the other person doesn't give a damn about you.
Thus, if you're not 100% certain that you've got someone's name correct, it's probably better not to address them by it, and instead immediately find some covert way of re-learning it (e.g., asking a friend or even apologetically asking that person to re-introduce him/herself to you).
However, don't just give up and not make subsequent attempts at learning someone's name just because you didn't get it the first time around. Hearing someone call you by the wrong name is horrible, but knowing that someone most likely doesn't know your name and isn't willing to learn it is also fairly irritating.
Tip 7: DON'T misspell someone's name in writing
When you are writing emails to people (or letters, if you're old-school), the single most important word to spell correctly is their name. Typos everywhere else can be tolerated, but people will reflexively cringe if they see their names misspelled. A person sees his name in writing probably more times than any other non-trivial word, so any misspellings will immediately pop out.
Many people have misspelled my name as Phillip in emails, even when my emails to them clearly spelled it Philip; this is one of my personal pet peeves, and I can't help but notice every single time it occurs.
A brain-dead-easy way to get someone's name correct in writing is to simply copy-and-paste it from a previous email they have written to you; the chances of someone spelling their own name wrong is far less than you spelling it wrong!
Tip 8: DO try to learn the names of important people surrounding your conversation partner
You can build even greater rapport with someone if you can remember the names of his/her significant other, spouse, kids, or even parents. That way, instead of sounding generic with something like, "So, how is your wife's art project going?", you can appear more personable with, "So, how's Deborah's art project going?"
Don't stress as much about these names, though, since they are less important than getting the person's own name nailed!
Epilogue: Reader-submitted tips
This article was reprinted in Lifehacker on 2010-08-30. As a result of this wider exposure, I have received some interesting additional tips from readers.
George from UC Davis recommends trying to visualize someone's name, along with an exaggeration on its letters: e.g., imagining the letter 'O' in someone's name as a big donut. He learned this tip from The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play.
Carlos shared the following tip via email:
I have a great method for remembering many names in a short period of time that I would like to share with our fellow Lifehacker's and hope that you can pass this on to them. I recently went on an oversees trip to learn Italian and in the first week of school I had met over 20 people and remembered all their names.
How it all works... Keep a quick note on an iPod (Or notepad) and when you meet someone new enter their name. Glance back at it every chance you get, specially after parting ways with them. Open up the note and go through the list at least a few times a day, visualizing each person. When you meet someone new, enter their name at the bottom of list, and once again visualize the people you had entered earlier. In case you see someone and do not remember their name, glance at your list; most of the time seeing the name will ring a bell and you'll remember!
I really loved the way it worked, and seems to be a sure-proof way to remember a lot of names in a short amount of time.
A Lifehacker reader EllenCherryCharles commented:
I'm a very visual learner and, like most people, terrible with names. A coworker taught me a bizarre trick that I've found very effective: when you meet someone new, imagine writing their name across their forehead in thick, black marker. They might be slightly taken aback when I stare at their forehead for a good couple of seconds after they introduce themselves, but they're always impressed when I can remember their name many hours (and often cocktails) later.
Finally, by far the most apropos email I've ever received about any of my articles came from Boris Konrad, who is the world record holder in memorizing names and faces (no kidding, this title actually exists!). Here is Boris's top tip for remembering names:
I actually care about this topic quite a lot, since I am the World Record holder in memorizing names & faces (yeah, there are competitions for memory and names & faces is one out of ten disciplines: http://worldmemorychampionships.com/ ; http://www.memorysports.info ; http://www.memocamp.com).
If you still care on this topic or think about writing another article on it, I would like to suggest to you, to try out mnemonics based on mental images before. You partly mention the idea, when you say "If you know someone else with the same name, try to associate that person with Sasha; or if you know some clever mnemonic or memory aid to help you remember her name, then use it, no matter how absurd it might seem." but in my opinion this can not be stressed out enough. Like trying to visualize you with filled lips to remember Philip.
Focusing and practising this kind of mental images, which also can be prepared well for common names, allowed me to memorize 195 names within 15 minutes (my record) and also to memorize names in real life situations without any problem.
Well, there you have it, advice straight from the name-memorizing champion himself!
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Last modified: 2010-09-18