How can I better remember the names of new people I meet?
April 21, 2008 10:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm really, really bad at remembering the names of new people that I meet. How can I get better at remembering new names?

I meet a lot of people in my job and I have come to realise that I am really, really bad at remembering the names of many (if not all) of the people I meet. I know and remember the names of people I work with on a daily basis as well as family members, friends and other loved ones. It is mostly just people I have only just met whose names I keep forgetting. Often (but not always) it gets so bad that I even forget the name of a person mere minutes after I have met them.

But it's only names I seem to have trouble with. I don't forget birthdays and I have some very vivid long and short term memories, so I don't think that my brain is malfunctioning in any major kind of way (put another way, I'm a 30yo guy so the chances of it being Alzheimer’s or something similar seem slim). I'd say the issue is just that I meet a lot of strangers every week and I think my brain has obviously decided that it is better to forget this information rather than compartmentalise it for later use. My brain is wrong to do so, and I have told it as much, but still I meet new people and I forget their names.

Well, I'm sick of it. Are there any tips, tricks and techniques you can offer me that will help me remember the names of new people that I meet? One caveat; it is not always possible for me to write their name down with notes that link the name to facial or bodily features (something I have decided would help me if I were able to do so). I need tips that will help me train my brain to remember a new persons name without the help of a pen and paper.
posted by Effigy2000 to Human Relations (23 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I'll be looking at the answers to this with interest, as I'm utterly terrible at remembering names too. I end up repeating them in my head a couple of times while looking at the person I'm meeting, which seems to tie name and image together a bit. I hate it when I'm in a group and someone goes around pointing, "And this is A, B, C, and C's partner D" - I don't even bother trying then.

I have the occasional terrible mental blank with names too, with people I've known for quite a while - like at a work function where I go to introduce my husband to my secretary and find that her name has completely disappeared from my mind. I flail around mentally for a few minutes feeling like I'm going mad and then suddenly it'll pop back, good as new. I think the name part of my brain is kind of broken :-)
posted by miss cee at 11:01 PM on April 21, 2008

I'm bad at this too, but recently I've gotten better about it, even when introduced to a large group. I have to make a conscious effort though. Here are some tricks I use:

1. Come up with a quick mnemonic for the obvious ones. I always go with "same name as x." As in, I met someone recently named Nancy, and immediately filed her as having the same name as my cousin.
2. Say their name in your head when you're introduced. I hate when someone introduces me rapidly to a group, and sometimes this part is awkward, but now I make a point of shaking everyone's hand. While I do I say in my head, or sometimes even out loud, "Chris, Bill, Joe, Steve," etc.
3. For the first few minutes after the introductions, quiz yourself on the names. Look at the people and think of their names, and do it a couple of times until you feel more sure.

Overall, this basically requires five or ten minutes depending on the size of the group, during which time I have to not engage too much in the conversation. Once it's set, though, I'm good for the night, or even for weeks.

The last time I really put this to use was when I went out with a whole bunch of my girlfriend's friends that I hadn't met yet. An hour later, two of my friends showed up, and I rattled off everyone else's names perfectly. Then I pumped my fist and said, "YES!" Oops.
posted by autojack at 11:09 PM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Here is a trick that will work in a very specific situation. If you are sitting at a table with someone (or many people) and they introduce themselves and give you their card, set their card in front of you on the table so you can glance at it just in case. This totally works because it comes off like you just want to be polite and keep listening and that you will fumble with putting their card in your wallet after they are done talking.

I was speaking with a very nice man at an airport and I noticed that he did this. I'm not certain that he did it for any particular reason, but as a fellow sufferer of "memory-like-a-goldfish-when-it-comes-to-names," I certainly picked up on the move and adopted it for my own genius purposes.
posted by scrumtralescent at 11:10 PM on April 21, 2008

What works for me is being active in using their name as soon as I have been introduced. In a natural way. People usually appreciate being called by their names and it will help you remember their name for the next time you interact with them.

posted by Sitegeist at 11:13 PM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also terrible at remembering names here.

One suggestion that's helped me is to get into the habit of doing quick mental inventories from time to time (eg you walk into a room and say to yourself, "Oh, there's Mary and Sally and David and some guy whose name I forget, and Peter" - it'll solidify the names in your head & you'll be more alert to the fact that you've forgotten that guy's name, so you'll end up listening out for it if somebody else mentions it)

Better yet is if you can come up with some kind of private nickname or similar mnemonic (eg your mate from the pub might be "Chris, always on the piss" or maybe "Plain Jane" for a cutie by that name)
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:19 PM on April 21, 2008

I too am horrible at remembering names. I forget the name of a dear friend on a weekly basis.

I used to be worse, especially with people I would only meet once, but what really did it for me was actively caring to remember the names. I don't know if this is a problem for you, but before I struck upon the realization that I didn't care about peoples names, I would complain about having a bad head for names, but I never got better.

Also, nthing the quiz idea. When I had to learn a whole bunch of new names at once when I moved into my dorm in college for the first time, I would regularly quiz myself.
posted by Carillon at 11:29 PM on April 21, 2008

I second UbuRoivas. Make up silly private nicknames. Fat guy called Ben: Big Ben. Creepy Chris. Hairy Harold.

This works for me, with the only problem being suppressing a grin if I think up a real snorter.
posted by pivotal at 11:30 PM on April 21, 2008

Repetition is the basis of good memory. When you first get introduced, say their name over 7 times in your head. Continually scan around people and re-repeat them while the names are fresh.

Try and associate the name and the face.
posted by spatula at 11:33 PM on April 21, 2008

I second Sitegheist. it's a great trick when you remember to use it. Works like a charm for you, and people LOVE to be called by their name by strangers. It establishes an immediate bond.

the bitch is remembering to do it.
posted by es_de_bah at 11:40 PM on April 21, 2008

before I struck upon the realization that I didn't care about peoples names, I would complain about having a bad head for names

I think there's a lot of truth in that, which is probably why I place a lot of importance on (private or public) nicknames. Because I have a name that's so very uncommon that I've only ever met one other person who shares it, generic names like David or Elizabeth or whatever mean nothing to me unless I can somehow personalise them so they identify that *particular* individual. Once you've named somebody for yourself, that name tends to stick.

Along those lines, I sometimes just apply a private adjective to common names. I've known, for example: Obnoxious Mary*, Psycho Mary, Cute Mary, Red Mary, Tall Mary, Punky Mary and so on, and those names stick in my head - it's like a kind of puzzle you ask yourself: "How does this particular Mary differ from all the other Marys I've known?"

* not her real name
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:46 PM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm really, really bad at remembering the names of new people that I meet.

I used to say this to other people as well as believe it about myself. One day I decided to test whether that had any influence on my performance. I stopped telling myself this, and started instead saying to people "I'm really good at remembering names." My name recall went up from about 30% to 95% or so over the course of the next month, one of the more dramatic proof-of-concepts I've ever witnessed.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:47 PM on April 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

You know, I used to think I was terrible with names too. And then I realized I wasn't terrible with names, I was terrible with faces. And I was terrible with faces because I didn't like to look at people when talking to them, so I never really saw their faces. (I learned growing up that if people noticed you, that was usually a bad thing, and looking at them made them notice you.) So the first step was getting over that. And the second step was paying attention when I was introduced to someone, giving their face a good look, paying attention to any distinguishing characteristics, saying their name mentally and even aloud to associate it with their face. I would also note any characteristics of their voice that might be helpful in identifying them later (e.g. accent, deep voice, etc.) When I saw them later, I would try to dredge up their name from my memory and at least say it to myself. When I started working at one company, we had weekly meetings and I'd go around the table trying to remember everyone's name, repeatedly. This was useful because I could use a process of elimination to deduce the names of people I couldn't remember, and because people would use each others' names naturally and I could make mental notes then.
posted by kindall at 11:55 PM on April 21, 2008

I should add that most people who are "good with names" do all that stuff too -- they just don't go around telling people that they do. Very few people are naturally "good with names." 90% of it is convincing yourself that it's important and forcing yourself to pay attention.
posted by kindall at 11:57 PM on April 21, 2008

Good stuff has been mentioned here - especially doing a constant mental inventory (I do this a lot, especially with the group of people I only see every week or two, but whose names are important to me). The other key I'd mention is using the name in more than one mode. You've sort of touched on this, when you mention that you can't always write someone's name, but try fingerspelling. When I meet someone, I'll often audiate their name, and then fingerspell it, and I'll repeat both forms when I'm doing my mental inventory. When I'm stuck on someone's name, I can often fingerspell it to myself, and then I remember it fine.

Sometimes I actually fingerspell it; more often, I think about fingerspelling it, and so my muscles tense a bit but my fingers don't actually move. That's just as good, and looks far less crazy. The other important part is that I'll repeat it back. I have do that anyway whether the name is spoken or fingerspelled, since my hearing is especially bad with names and my fingerspelling is good but not perfect, but people seem to appreciate it regardless. It demonstrates that you care about remembering their name. (Which is key technique number 3, by the way - care. Don't wait until you need their name to realize that this is something you should know.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:09 AM on April 22, 2008

Use names early and often, because that creates an associative memory of yourself doing something, and we're wired to remember our own actions in particular situations far more readily than other people's.

As a kid, I came into possession of an American book from the 50s or thereabouts that suggested creating a double-association: you pick a characteristic and associate it with the surname in a absurd melded visual: Joe Smith with a red nose becomes a blacksmith beating out a red nose with a cup of coffee. That's of limited use for names that aren't easily convertible into English-language visuals, and I'm sceptical about the overall technique. I did, however, take on board the idea that Bush-esque nicknames or rhyming associations will come back and bite you on the arse.
posted by holgate at 12:17 AM on April 22, 2008

I've found that saying "nice to meet you, [yourname]" is effective for me... I usually also repeat it a couple more times in my head, but saying it aloud is the easiest and most effective thing to do... saying it in my head helps, but without saying it aloud I'd say my chances of remembering are significantly reduced...
posted by twiggy at 12:20 AM on April 22, 2008

Peripherally, if you later meet someone whose name you've forgotten, a trick is to say, "I'm really sorry but I've forgotten your name". If she then tells you her name is Alice, you say, "Yes, I know it's Alice but I can't remember your surname".
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 12:46 AM on April 22, 2008

When I first learn someone's name, I note the color of the flecks in their eyes. It forces me to really look at them for a second while I hear their name. That seeing-hearing combo puts the name into my memory.

Of course, you don't want to stare at them and be a creepy stalker.
posted by 26.2 at 1:36 AM on April 22, 2008

Not a solution, but a face saver to your problem below... as it happens to me all the time.

(My theory is that we are just absorbing so much when we meet new people that names don't get much of a look in. Sales assistants and such are no problem because I'm not trying to assess them in any way.... well, usually not.)

When I see people I know I should know, who know my name and I just can't remember their name.... I ask how they spell their name. Most names have a few alternative spellings.
Sort of like, "How DO you spell your name again"?
The few times I've been caught with a Peter or George I say
"Hmmmmm, I was sure that it was you that spelled it P I E T E R/G E O R J, must be another Peter/George."

I also like to hear people say their name. When I commit a name to memory, when recalling it, I try to hear the voice of the person saying it.... in my head. (Oh, God, did I just admit to hearing voices? I promise they hardly ever tell me CIA secrets.)
posted by taff at 2:51 AM on April 22, 2008

I repeat the name back to them: "Oh, hi Stacey, nice to meet you". When they're out of sight I repeat it again, out loud, to myself. Doesn't have to be loud, but for me actually physically saying it works better than just mentally repeating it. I don't mess around with mnemonic 'tricks' as I found I spent more time trying to remember the trick than I did the name itself, though if an association immediately presents itself (oh, she has the same name as my cousin), I hold on to that. I just don't force it. I want to pay attention to the person, not a trick.

Of course, sometimes I still forget names, so I have a few aces up my sleeve. First, if I'm in a crowd of people, like at a party or a large meeting, and I know I don't know their name, I pay attention to what other people are calling them and repeat it to myself. If I'm at work I might glance at their security badge or cubicle name plate. In a short term situation, like at a game day, I don't hestitate to write down their name and refer to that list when needed. And if all else fails, I have been known to hold entire conversations with someone without referring to their name at all. It can be done.
posted by sandraregina at 9:11 AM on April 22, 2008

The tips given so far pretty much match what I try to do.

In case you do forget, though, here's a scheme my college roommates and I came up with. It works best in situations where some people are just meeting for the first time, while others have probably met before. Think company christmas party, college dining hall, class reunion, business schmooze event, etc. These situations tend to be minefields for people who are bad with names, because you're constantly having to introduce people to each other. That's a tough job when you've forgotten their names.

Ahead of time you need to work out a signal with your significant other, trusted coworker, buddy, or whomever you'll be hanging out with at the event. A quick eye or nose rub makes a decent signal, or you could itch the back of one hand with the other, in front of your body. At the event, you glance up from your punch to see old-what's-his-name approaching, and you quickly but subtly enact the signal. This lets your compatriot know that you've forgotten the name of the person you guys are about to talk to. Rather than wait for an introduction, your friend then takes the lead in the conversation, saying "Hi, I'm Joe" to the newcomer. Most people will respond with something along the lines of "Hi Joe, I'm Tim." Now you know the mystery person's name - don't forget it this time!
posted by vytae at 9:28 AM on April 22, 2008

I meet several people through my job everyday. I carry a small memopad with me. Immediately after an initial interaction I write their name down and jot a short note about them. At the end of the day I briefly review them.
posted by GPF at 8:11 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Say their name four times during the first meeting with them. As in, "Hi Dan, its so nice to meet you." "That's interesting Dan, I feel the same way."
posted by thebrokenmuse at 8:34 PM on April 22, 2008

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