How to Stop Being the Worst and Start Remembering People's Names
Remembering someone's name is human decency 101. If you're bad at it, things get awkward fast.
Illustrations: Ashley Goodall
This article is presented by V Energy as part of our Mad Skills series
The thing is, you're not fooling anyone. You know how you blanked on the name of your primary school acquaintance and thought you got away with calling them "mate"? They knew exactly what that was. Or what about that time you were putting a girl's number in your phone and realised you had no idea what her first, let alone last, name was? Handing the phone to her "to get the spelling right" was not a smooth move. Her name was Jane.
There's hope though. Some people are actually really, really good at remembering names—and we asked them to teach us everything they know.
A MEMORY CHAMPION
Tansel Ali is the only person in the world to successfully memorise two entire Yellow Pages phone directories. The author of several books about improving memory, he is a four time winner of the Australian Memory Championships, and still holds the Australian record for remembering the most people's names. Now working as a memory coach, Ali insists that the techniques behind his successes are super simple and that our approach to memory is all wrong.
"We think memory is just repetition and rote learning, because that's how we learn at school—so even as adults, we just repeat stuff and hope for the best. But in fact, that's the worst way to memorise."
In fact, memorisation is a creative act. "To remember names, we should be using stories and imagination," Ali says. "Honestly, memory is a result of your creativity and imagination, that's it. If you want to improve your memory, you just have to improve your imagination."
There are three steps to Ali's name-remembering formula (the same formula that he uses to memorise strings of hundreds of words in a row). The first is to create an image from the word you hear. "The reason people forget names is that they're abstract, and they don't make any sense; they may as well be numerical formulas," he says. "So what we need to do is encode that abstract into an image. Once we have that image we can manipulate it to create a story." Take the example of someone called John. "You might recall an image of a family member or celebrity named John, or maybe even an image of a toilet," he says.
The second step is to make up a story using that mental image. "Picture John sitting on the toilet, reading the newspaper or something like that. Make up a funny little story," Ali explains.
The final step? Association. This is where memorisation happens.
So why aren't we all amazing memory wizards if word association is all it takes? Ali says that it's a matter of awareness—if more people understood that memory is about using the right side of your brain as much as the left, the world would be a different place.
"This technique should be taught in schools," he says. "That's partly why I work as a memory coach: out of frustration that it isn't."
AN ETIQUETTE EXPERT
Susie Wilson is Australia's leading etiquette and deportment expert. The number one question she receives is how to better remember people's names. And there's a reason for that: addressing people properly gives you enormous power.
You know in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep makes Anne Hathaway memorise the names and faces of every single person on a party guest list, then walk around all night whispering them into her ear? Remembering names is the key to asserting your dominance at a social event, whether you're the fiercest woman in magazine publishing or not.
Unfortunately, we can't all hire a personal assistant to take care of our basic social etiquette for us. If you're not the editor of Runway, remembering people's names is just something you have to do by yourself. It takes practice, Wilson says, but it's definitely possible.
"It really is about listening," she says. "Making eye contact. I always say repeat their name out loud in the conversation right after they introduce themselves. The more you say it out loud, the more you retain and remember that person's name."
Now that you've got the person's name on the tip of your tongue, practice using it. If you're in a group of people at a party, introduce your new acquaintance to anyone who enters the conversation. "Making introductions is a really good way to remember names," Wilson says. "If you join a group of people at a party, introduce yourself so they tell you their name, and then repeat it five times in your head. Trust me, do that and you will remember it!"
In business situations, Wilson recommends asking for people's business cards. "When you receive them, read them first—don't just shove them in your wallet or throw them away," she advises. "Look at the name, say the name quietly, and you'll retain the first and last name."
"In Japan, when somebody gives you a business card, you take it with both hands and look at it as if it's a gift."
What if you just suck, though? What if even the most basic memorisation techniques are failing you? That's okay. "Just be honest, darling! Just confess," she says. "Say, 'I'm sorry, I forgot your name.' People are very forgiving." This honesty will be much more endearing than quite obviously having no idea what someone's name is. You can have a laugh about the whole thing, and suddenly be on much more familiar terms.
The thing is, it's not just about the name. "Respect the whole person, and you'll end up remembering who they are," Wilson says.
"Etiquette is about respect. It's about putting yourself in the other person's shoes. Take the time to smile, the time to get to know the person in front of you, ask probing questions. Be honest, be courteous."
A COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGIST
A memory specialist, Amanda Barnier is a professor and research fellow at Macquarie University's Department of Cognitive Science. She's able to look at the learnings from Wilson and Ali through an academic perspective. "It's really important to understand why we forget names, and the ways in which information gets into memory," she explains.
"Throughout the day we're walking around in the world and encountering new information—like where we've parked our car, and people's names. In order to remember these things later we really have to process quite actively."
The first step to remembering names, Barnier says, is to be observant.
"Often being unable to remember people's names happens simply because when they're introduced to you, you're thinking of other things. It's a failure of attention."
It sounds obvious, but this is the fundamental reason why you're not very good at remembering names. When someone introduces themselves, you're probably much more interested in observing whether or not they've got good hair, what they're wearing, and whether they're worth pursuing a conversation with. Typically, your brain power is dedicated to formulating an appropriate response to what they're saying—not what their name is.
Barnier explains that there are three stages to committing someone's name into memory, and all of them require a bit of effort on your part. "There's encoding, which is getting the information into your brain in the first place," she says. That's the "pay attention" stage that most people mess up. "Once you've done that, the next stage is storing—consolidating and organising the information. Then retrieving, which is getting the information back out again so you can use it."
If you consciously go through these stages, the name will be transferred from your short and long term memory. And yes, Barnier recommends the memory-training methods espoused by Ali—personalise the information when you receive it, so that it sticks.
"You need to be rehearsing the name and connecting it to other things, making it meaningful. Do whatever you can to draw links between the name you've learned and other information you know. If you rehearse it, then it gets passed into long term memory. Once it's there, the more meaningful it is and the more linked to other information, the more likely you'll remember it later," she says.
Remembering names isn't difficult, to be honest. The key is basically this: don't be a boring conversational robot. Don't treat small talk carelessly—value your interactions, listen to what people say to you, pay attention. Names may seem abstract and boring, but the people they signify aren't. So make the link between someone's name and what they represent. If you can train yourself to do this, you'll know the Yellow Pages off by heart in no time.
V Energy has compiled a bunch of hacks around crucial life skills. You can check them out here.