October 2017

The Name Game

By Jeffrey Chinn

Director of Career Services, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

“Tell me, who are you? … 'Cause I really wanna know”1  Do you often hear the following phrases at offices, social mixers, meetings, and dinners? “What was your name again?” “I’m terrible at remembering names” “Uh, we’ve met before?” “And you are?” (add sheepish tone). If you meet a lot of people (or just a few) facial recognition can be easier than name recognition. Time is not a variable as the forgetfulness can occur days, hours, or even minutes after meeting a person. This article provides some basic tips on remembering names and encourages you to research a method that works for you. Solutions are varied and one size does not fit all, but here is some information to get you kickstarted.

“Blinding me with science, science.”2

There are scientific reasons for not remembering someone’s name. There are two components to memory — perception and recall. An event can be recalled correctly but factors at the time made the person perceive it incorrectly. Conversely, the perception of the event is correct, but there are errors made in recalling the details later. The forensic science studies of memory used in areas such as eyewitness identification are particularly useful. We know that certain variables that cannot be controlled such as environmental distractions (e.g., other people in the room, lights, loud music/noise level)3 which will lead to errors in perception.  

Another theory is that a name, on its own, is random and contains no specific information for the brain to connect to. The brain has an easier time when connecting an athlete’s name to a team or a musician’s name to a song. Also, you may be distracted by thinking how you will introduce yourself rather than listening to the other person’s introduction. Simply, you are not paying attention or committed to hearing a name. Finally, our limited brain storage and repetition plays a role. Over time, lack of attention to connecting certain pieces of information to a name will make those facts eventually fade away.4

“I ask myself, [i]s all hope lost?”5

No, absolutely not! There are many “lifehacks” out there so here are few to get you started: 

Focus on and pay attention to the person you meet. Repeat their name during the conversation (or perhaps when you leave the conversation). Focus also means not being distracted by your surroundings, other people, or thinking about something/someone else.6

Some suggest using word or facial associations. Connect the name to someone you know (that is my sister’s name) or someone you recognize (Ryan looks like Ryan Gosling).7  And what about mnemonics? I always think about an episode of TV show The Office where Michael Scott used this technique: “I have taken a unique part of who you are, and I have used that to memorize your name. Baldy. Your head is bald. It is hairless. It is shiny. It is reflective, like a mirror. M. Your name is Mark.”8 Use at your own risk. 

I suggest getting the person’s business card and, on the card, write down a connection, follow up action, or something distinctive about your conversation. If a business card is not available, ask the person if it is OK to connect with them on LinkedIn and ask how they spell their last name. Also, repeated meetings with the same person will result in success! Face your fears upon meeting someone for the second (third?) time and admit to yourself that you have forgotten their name. You could start with an introduction (they may not remember your name either) and a reference to your prior meeting. It may be enough to jar your memory and reveal a name. If you are not 100 percent sure of the person’s name, do not guess. In the end, it’s OK to admit to the person that you do not remember their name.

Remembering names is easier than learning to fly, but keep practicing because sometimes too much ain’t enough. Keep testing different techniques and soon, you’re gonna get it.9