Thursday, January 31, 2008

Four Steps to Memorize a Name

Our names are so important to us. It’s on all our official documents, we answer proudly to it, we even learn to sign it with the flourish we think it merits. It’s flattering when someone remembers it -- and a little offensive when someone doesn’t:

The ability to recall other people's names is not only appreciated, it can also be both personally and professionally beneficial. Nonetheless, whether we meet 10 people or just one or two, we often have trouble remembering names -- despite their cultural importance. This occurs for a variety of reasons:

Names are exchanged at the beginning of a conversation and not at the end, which is when we’d be more likely to recall them. We’re not paying a whole lot of attention, perhaps because we think we have no reason or desire to remember them. Because the names themselves typically don’t mean anything other than to signify that particular person and to give them a "title."

This last reason may be the most significant. A guy tells you his name is John because his father’s name was John. Well, who’s his father to you? Nobody. But if a scrawny guy introduces himself as Fatty and says his parents were big Fatty Arbuckle fans, now we’re getting somewhere.

Normally you won’t be so lucky, so the best method for memorizing the names of others lays in the following 4-step process, alternating reinforcement with the use of mnemonic devices and observational connections.

step 1 Repeat the name in the introduction This is a basic and even obvious first step, but it demands inclusion. Doing so serves as the memory’s first reinforcement of the name, and it also happens to be good etiquette.

Thus, whether it is following an introduction by a third person or the introduction is initiated by you or the other person, repeat their name in a simple, direct way, such as, “Todd, is it?” or “Nice to meet you, Mary.” Don't over-annunciate the name or make it obvious that you are repeating it for memorization purposes. Just make sure that you throw in the name at the beginning of the introduction again, or pepper it throughout your discussion at opportune moments to remind yourself and keep your mind focused on the name.

step 2 Apply a suitable device Your next step is an internal one: Apply a mnemonic device to the name itself in a second effort at reinforcement. Here there are a number of options at your disposal. Which device you choose to use is whatever works best for you. Such a device may be most effective when it isn’t the most obvious, or when it asks your brain to operate in a manner to which it isn’t accustomed. Some options include:

Make a rhyme. Write it down. The simple act of jotting it down can be all you’ll need to memorize a name, although you may consider writing it down with your weaker hand. It won’t look pretty, but it’ll take longer and will demand more concentration. Spell the name backwards in your head. Similar to the aspect of a field sobriety test that asks you to recite the alphabet backwards, doing this requires an unconventional mental action and will have you concentrating on the name fully. step 3 Immediately put the name to work Use the name the first time you address the person beyond the introduction, such as, “So, Todd, Alex tells me…” or “Mary, did you say you went to Penn State?”

Here you run the risk of looking like a moron if you repeatedly use the name -- we’ve all met those people before -- so beyond some necessity, cut it off here until you say goodbye, and then employ the name one last time.

This type of repetition and reinforcement has merit: In the oral tradition of Homer’s Iliad, names are repeated regularly and are sometimes assigned descriptive epithets that help the listener associate certain traits with certain characters.

step 4 Make a physical connection Finally, keep in mind that our visual memory is strong; after all, you hear “I never forget a face” far more often than “I never forget a name.” So, in the final step, give that visual recollection the task of tagging the name together with some conspicuous or prominent aspect. A human face has yet to be born without some hook or tweak on which to hang your observational associations. For example:

Eyes (shape, color, expressiveness or emptiness, shiftiness, intensity); eyebrows (uni-brow, bushy, thin, arched); or a short forehead, a shocking chin, a dramatic double curve of the upper lip (called Cupid’s bow), or any distinguishing feature at all that you can tie to the name.
Should the face fail you, seek out other less ostensibly visual characteristics, such as manner of speaking (accent, lisp, nasal, good diction, loud, soft-spoken) or word choice (pretentious terms, odd synonyms, slang, cursing, using your name in excess).

forget me not

If all else fails, refer back to a Native American tradition used among the Lakota Sioux -- “Sara Sucks-her-lip,” “Neal So-much-nose-hair” or “Diana Doe-eyes” -- in which names were more like descriptions or headings, not simply designations. Names are harder to forget when you’ve visually merged a distinct physical trait to an otherwise forgettable name.

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