The Simplest Scientific Strategies for Remembering People’s Names
I’m a bit particular about my name — which is unfortunate for me, considering how often it’s mishandled. People mispronounce it, misspell it, ignore it in favor of a nickname they’ve decided to give me, or forget it altogether. Sometimes I get “Julie,” other times, a blank stare. Most shrug off their clumsiness, saying they’re simply “bad with names.”
But remembering names is a critical skill when it comes to building relationships. Dale Carnegie, the late author of How to Win Friends & Influence People, wrote, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” When you address someone by name — at a party, a company event, or a family reunion — you’re dropping a bit of social shorthand that lets them know: This person cares about me. This person thinks I’m interesting. This person wants to learn more about me.
That means if you can be the rare person who’s good with names, you automatically have a level of power that others don’t. Remembering names isn’t easy (research shows that it’s actually quite hard), but with dedication, practice, and a bit of tricking your brain, it’s possible to master the skill.
Acknowledge the difficulty
One reason it’s so hard to remember names correctly: They’re arbitrary. That is, they bear no relationship to what they describe. If I tell you I’m snacking on an orange, you can form a mental image of the thing on my plate, because the label has a mutually understood meaning. But if I tell you I got the orange from Ashley, you have hardly any clues about who Ashley is.
Matching the right arbitrary label to the right person, then, is no small mental feat. Charan Ranganath, director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California, Davis, explained in Time that we often underestimate the amount of work it takes to perform the seemingly simple task of remembering someone’s name. “You’re not only remembering the name, but you’re remembering the name in relation to a face,” Ranganath said. “Even if you get the information in, which we call encoding, you might not be able to find the information because…