How can I stop being self-centered?
May 7, 2008 10:13 AM   Subscribe

I have a problem remembering the responses other people give to my questions, unless I'm really interested for selfish reasons (e.g. I'm interested in the other person as a potential date). How do I fix this?

I don't think of myself as self-centered. When I'm around other people, I generally try to ask them questions about themselves and to talk about topics that are of interest to others. I do enjoy talking about myself and my experiences, but I try not to monopolize conversations.

The thing is, I not infrequently forget how other people respond to the questions I ask, and this can be embarrassing.

Here's a recent example: "What did you do on your vacation?" I ask this as part of small talk and then somehow, just a few hours later, I find myself asking again. When the person starts answering, immediately it rings a bell and I realize I had actually heard the answer already. Then I feel like a jerk for having forgotten (and wonder if the other person thinks I'm a jerk, too). Another common example is asking where someone is from and then immediately forgetting...or forgetting that a friend told me he is sick with a cold.

Judging from experience, I think if I were speaking with someone who was a romantic interest, I *would* remember. But even with very close friends, I'll forget things they tell me that I really should remember, like the example above of being sick.

I *want* to pay more attention to what people say to me, and to remember. I just don't know how to make myself pay more attention/not forget. This has started happening more and more frequently, and it is troubling me. (I'm in my mid-20s, so unfortunately I can't chalk this up to old age....) Any advice would be much appreciated!
posted by monkey85 to Human Relations (10 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Forgetfulness of the type of mention is one of the symptoms of ADD. Not saying you're ADD, just that if you have other symptoms then that's a whole other course of action other than doing memory exercises, etc.
posted by wfrgms at 10:21 AM on May 7, 2008

When someone says something, repeat it back to them and try to think of a question you are interested in about it. By making yourself repeat the response, and think about it enough to ask a question, you'll commit it to memory better.

You: "Where did you go on your vacation?"
Joe: "I went to Aruba!"
You: "Aruba? Where on Aruba did you stay?"
posted by tastybrains at 10:22 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

This could be me! I suffer from the exact same problem and it's not only embarassing, it's exasperating!

Are you actually listening to people's responses or are you already thinking about the next question and/or thinking about something totally unrelated? I find that I sometimes haven't even heard what someone has told me b/c my mind is either racing forward or off in some totally different direction.

To deal with this, I try to remind myself before heading out to a social event that I'm going to be chatting with people and therefore need to be "checked in," so to speak. Then when I'm involved in a conversation I really force myself to listen to what the person is saying and not let my eyes wander around the room or my mind wander off. This takes a conscious effort and a lot of practice, but on the occasions when I've actually been able to do this, I find that I've retained a lot more information.
posted by anonymous78 at 10:30 AM on May 7, 2008

Do you only forget the answers to these insignificant small-talk type of questions? If so, maybe it would help to stop asking them altogether and only ask about things you sincerely are interested in hearing about. I know people make small-talk to be polite or whatever, but it is very frustrating (for me) to talk to someone who inquires about typical small-talk topics when I know they don't really care and who later won't remember a word of what was said. You probably remember what romantic interests say because you are really, truly interested in anything that comes out of their mouths. Think about what you might be able to talk about with someone to intiate an engaging conversation, and ask about things you are actually interested in!
posted by Polychrome at 10:37 AM on May 7, 2008

Don't ask questions unless you're interested in the answers. This should go a long way.

Fight the Good Fight: Small talk stops with you.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:38 AM on May 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seconding everything Tastybrains said. The repetition thing works for learning names, too!

How's the rest of your life going? Are you forgetful in other situations? I notice that my memory, recall and general concentration tends to fail if I'm depressed, tired, hungry, stressed, not exercising.. just generally not taking care of myself.

I guess I need a little more clarification here - I get that you're forgetting that you asked the question, not that you've forgotten the answer. What I'm wondering is, are you forgetting you've previously asked the question because you're just blurting something out to avoid an awkward silence or otherwise feel pressured to make small talk? It's totally okay to take a moment to collect your thoughts!

On the other hand, if you're just plain forgetting on a regular basis, sometimes it helps to remember the last time you spoke with the person -- remembering the setting helps me tremendously. "Oh, I last caught up with Bob at Theresa's party and we talked about his vacation."
posted by giraffe at 11:11 AM on May 7, 2008

It doesn't sound like you're actually forgetting, just that your brain is not filing the info in such a way that it is up on your sort of cognitive "heads up" display when you are dealing with a particular individual.

The way you react to someone you are romantically interested in is not a reasonable baseline for how you should expect yourself to deal with anyone else.

I do this too: I have a small but irritating set of information types that I cannot conveniently access from my memory. Names, small-talk type individual facts, directions (most sucky example), the rules of card games, strangely enough. I had this temp job years ago where they were so bad at finding me work to do that I spent hours every day playing Hearts and I honestly had to review the rules every Monday. I've learned to play Cribbage like eight times: I couldn't tell you the first thing. I still josh with a close friend and former college roommate about how every time he would say something in Spanish I would say "oh, you speak Spanish?" and he would reply "We were IN SPANISH CLASS together!" I must have done that like five times. True, we were in the class together before we became friends but still, right?

Anyway. Tactics: about the only thing that helps a little for me is bolstering the datum with additional facts, in other words, follow up, get a little story around it, some details. I agree with Polychrome and fiercecupcake that tending to slip into "small talk autopilot" is part of the problem, but if you're like me small talk is such a strong social tendency that this is hard to control. Mostly, I "front load" my embarrassment: somebody tells me for the third time what they do for a living and I just say "oh, I asked you that twice already didn't I? I'm such a scatterbrain!" Admission and mea culpa out of the way and then I just forget about it. With names I warn people upfront that I'll probably forget it a couple of times and not to take it personally.
posted by nanojath at 11:29 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

In a way, I find the reverse of your question more interesting: why would someone remember where Bob went for vacation?

Forgetting doesn't mean you don't care about Bob. It means you don't can't tie his vacation plans into your frames of reference.

I know my wife cares about me, but when I come home and tell her stuff about work, about people she's never met and projects she's not involved in, I'm not surprised when she can't remember the details later. I'm the same way with her. Every day she tells me the drama, but though I've heard about them for years, I can't keep the names of all the secretaries straight. They don't tie in with my life.

Let's say someone REALLY important to you -- your mom, your girlfriend, etc. -- said "Please remember these numbers 92, 373, 11, 883, 9, 34, 18." Would you feel like a selfish person if you forgot them?

So first of all, I think you should go easy on yourself. You're not self-absorbed or uncaring. You just have a normal memory. In order to easily recall something, it has to be connected to something important to you. You have no connection to Bob's vacation, other than Bob. And Bob, as much as you care about him, is not good enough. There are zillions of facts about him. You can't remember them all.

Two suggestions:

1. When Bob says, "I went to Switzerland," try to personalize it by relating it to your life somehow. Hmm. I've never been there. That's where they have the famous Swiss banks. I just saw a documentary about them..." This can help with conversation, too. "Oh, cool, Bob! Did you open an account in a Swiss bank?"

2. This is a bit more extreme, but you could try keeping a journal and writing notes in it after returning from a social event: "Bob went to Switzerland; Amy just got divorced..." You could go over these notes from time to time.
posted by grumblebee at 1:59 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have this problem when asking for directions, and I've had to train myself to visualize in my head the route that they're explaining. This stops my brain from racing on ahead, all "ok, so when I get there, I'll need to bring that big umbrella and get my extra foam finger out of the trunk, etc etc".

I think a similar technique would work in small-talk situations as well. When they tell you their goldfish's name is Boris or that they grew up on a commune or whatever, actually make a mental picture of it. This will stop you from thinking about something else, which I bet is the problem.
posted by exceptinsects at 11:41 PM on May 7, 2008

Two phrases I repeat frequently:

"I think I may have asked you before, but ..."

Upon hearing the same response to a question I asked before: "Oh, that's right -- you told me about that last week when we were by the water cooler." Fill in the details you suddenly remember.

I just apologize and move on. Happens all the time. Conversely, I forgive those that similarly forget chatty details.
posted by GPF at 6:39 AM on May 8, 2008

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