6 Feb 2023

A foolproof guide to remembering names

Remembering the names of people to whom you have been introduced can be a haphazard business. Some names are unusual, absurdly inappropriate, comic or pretentious, and will therefore stick in your mind. Many names are instantly forgettable, and more drastic measures need to be taken.

Remembering names in a business context is particularly crucial, as it indicates that you are focused on the job in hand and that you care about your professionalism. Potential clients and customers will always react positively if you remember their names but may feel subtly disrespected if you do not.

We’ve all forgotten names at one point or another, but if you feel you are an inveterate name-forgetter, you might want to experiment with the following measures:

• Remind yourself of the name of someone to whom you have just been introduced by using his or her name once or twice, but try not to overdo it, or you will look like an importunate salesman or appear ingratiating.

• Concentrate on the job in hand. Often you instantly forget names because you are not fully focused on the conversation; maybe your mind is elsewhere, or you’re thinking about a question you need to ask. If you’re not really listening to what you are being told, you will never retain it.

• Use visualisation techniques. For example, as soon as you hear the name, mentally blazon it across the person’s forehead. Or pick out a striking physical characteristic (the person’s hair, height, eye colour, spectacles etc) and couple it with their name in your memory – Sarah/glasses; Malcolm/beard; Lydia/curly hair. If the name conjures up a visual image (Angela/angel; Leo/lion) use it.

• Use association. It is often easier to remember names if you are already familiar with them, eg if the person you are meeting has the same name as your father, sister or best friend. But if these connections do not already exist, try and create them. Take the name and attach it to something or someone you already know – Charlotte, for example, could be connected to Charlotte Brontë, Queen Charlotte, Charlotte in North Carolina or Charlotte Rampling.

• Use mnemonics: Think of something memorable that rhymes with the name or make up a simple ditty.

• Repeat the name when you say goodbye. Every time you repeat a name you are increasing your chance of remembering it in the future and using it at the end of the conversation sounds natural and unforced.

On being introduced, it is quite permissible to ask for a name or title to be repeated, and even, if it is a complicated or unusual name that you still haven’t grasped, to ask for it to be spelt out. It is far better to show a genuine desire to get someone’s name right that to act as though it isn’t worth committing it to memory.

Unfortunately, the British cannot use an equivalent of ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’ without a last name, which can be a very effective way of concealing your forgetfulness. You cannot really call someone ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ (other than schoolteachers) and should only use ‘Sir’ for a schoolmaster, or if you are in the forces. Don’t use other terms (‘darling’, ‘dear’, ‘sweetie’ etc) to paper over the fact that you’ve forgotten someone’s name. These are terms of endearment and complete strangers may well feel suspicious to find your conversation peppered with them.

Above all, don’t become so obsessed with remembering the name that you fail to participate in the conversation. If you do forget, don’t panic – you can generally negotiate your way through a conversation without naming names, and you can always find out later. If you have a partner, you could arrange a secret signal whereby they come over and introduce themselves to the person whose name you’ve forgotten, which may well elicit a reciprocal self-introduction so that the elusive name is revealed before you compromise yourself.  If all else fails, a charming and self-deprecating “I’m so sorry, I’m terrible at remembering names, I always do this…” should dig you out of the hole.

You know how difficult it is to remember names, so do not be offended when people cannot get your name into their head, just repeat it patiently, and try not to take the memory lapse personally. However, if a person blanks you several times at successive gatherings, then it is rude of them, unless they have a genuine problem. Try your hardest not to do the same to others.

If someone gets your name wrong, correct them as soon as possible, enunciating clearly and firmly but politely, so there is no mistake. It can be very embarrassing for both parties if such errors persist.


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