DIY: Remembering names

Bryhanna Greenough is really sorry, but she can’t remember your name.

I will admit to you now that whatever part of the brain is supposed to recognize faces and associate them with names, I don’t have it.

I am horrible at remembering people’s names.

As soon as I hear a name it disappears into thin air. Especially after a person has removed their glasses, or shaven their beard, or aren’t wearing that red hoodie, or are in a different place than I normally see them, or…

It’s something I need to work on.

I fantasize a return to the Sixties, when a person could get by referring to everyone as “Brother” or “Sister.” A near-universal name.

Remembering someone’s name is important. If you run into your friend’s friend—the one you were talking with for a good half hour at that party the other night—and they greet you with a “hey!” it means differently than if they were to say “Hey [insert your name here]!” Remembering someone’s name is flattering. It means you respect them. You’re more inclined to stop and have a conversation. You’re more likely to connect.

So you can see why it’s a source of stress.

I’m even afraid to dye my hair a bright colour because it will make me a more memorable character. People will remember me, and likely remember my name… and so the pressure for me to remember names increases. A little absurd? Maybe, but St. John’s isn’t a big city where one can float through the streets anonymously.

The problem with names starts with the introduction. At that point in the conversation I feel the most awkward and self-conscious. It’s terrible. As the person’s name escapes from their lips and floats away like a balloon, I’m simultaneously chasing after it and racking my brain to think of anything more interesting to say than, “so what do you do?”

But I’ve resolved to change my ways. If I’ve had some kind of meaningful interaction with someone—even a brief conversation—I want to be able to remember their name and be able to connect it to their face.

I’ve been doing some digging and asking friends for tips.

Lesley Thompson teaches French at MUN and usually has around fifty students in a class. To her, remembering peoples’ names is an essential part of being a teacher.

“If I’m repeatedly asking a student their name at the end of the semester, I feel really bad,” she says, “and it affects them as well.”

“Remembering their name helps them feel like they have a place in the class.”
She admits it’s pretty difficult though.

“With a new class, everyone looks the same… It’s like a sea of people.”

Her key strategy involves repetition. When she meets a new student, she repeats the name, asks if she’s pronouncing it right, or asks if there’s a nickname they’d rather use.

Although this might be a little hard to do outside of a classroom, I think the idea is transferable. When someone says their name, try to buy a bit of time to focus on it. Repeat the name after they say it. If it’s an unusual name, ask them to spell it. If you feel like an idiot doing it over and over, you can just explain you’re terrible with names but you want to remember theirs.

I’ve read some things which tell you to imagine writing out the person’s name by hand and then picture the letters scrolling across the person’s forehead. (I just tried this on my friend and I can’t seem to do it.)

Another idea is to actually write out the name in the air with your finger when you meet them. Or pretend to write it on the palm of your hand. (This one I have actually tried it before and it’s a good one.)

If you are really, really terrible at names, you could actually write it down on a piece of paper when no one’s looking. The plus side to this technique is you won’t feel stressed about forgetting it. You’ve got it, and no one has to know.

Using rhyming or other mnemonics is also a possibility. No one has to know that “Lindsay has a lot to say,” or “Bob is a knob,” or “Alice has lice,” or “Alice looks like lettuce,” or “Alice is totally living in Wonderland.” The tricks don’t have to be cruel, but they do have to be memorable.

(Note: If your name is Alice and I ever meet you, I’m sure to remember your name.)

I find the common one-syllable names a little harder to remember. In this case, try spelling them backwards. “Nek,” “Mij,” or “Neb.”

Another thing to do is connect the name to the title of a song or to someone famous. Lindsay (Lohan.) Paul (Smith.) Brad (Pitt.) Ruby (Baby.) (My) Bonnie.

Another friend, Geoff Younghusband, has an entirely different set of strategies for remembering someone’s name: “Wait for someone to use it aloud in conversation, discreetly ask someone else, go through their mail and look for anything not addressed ‘occupant’, or give them a nickname so you don’t need to remember their real name.”

Everyone’s got a strategy, and some are better than others.

Illustration by Kira Sheppard.

Give us your suggestions! Leave a comment here and tell us how you remember people’s names.