“I call everyone ‘Darling’ because I can’t remember their names.”
– Zsa Zsa Gabor
I’m pretty good about remembering people’s names. But I wasn’t always. I’ve gotten better over the years by practicing regularly and instilling a few specific habits.
Here’s what I recommend if you want to develop this skill, too.
1. Get It Right The First Time
To remember someone’s name, you first need to know what it is. This means listening closely when they tell you.
Repeating a name right after hearing it will help ensure you heard correctly. For example, say you meet a guy who introduces himself as Chris. You’d reply back with something like:
— Hi, Chris. Nice to meet you.
Making yourself repeat the name forces you to get it right. If you can’t repeat the name because you didn’t quite catch it initially, that’s your cue to ask them to repeat it.
Let’s say you meet a girl here in Amsterdam and she tells you her name. You’re not sure you heard her correctly so you might say something like this:
— Sorry, what was your name again?
— Mijsje [pronounced ME-sha]
— Ah ok, Mijsje. Nice to meet you.
The bottom line here is to always make an effort to repeat the name of the person you just met. If you didn’t hear them correctly, ask them to repeat it. If you say it wrong, they have the opportunity to correct you.
2. Make It Sticky
“The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.” – Ed Cooke, Grand Master of Memory
Repeating the name once is a good first step, but it doesn’t mean you’ll remember it. The next step is to make it memorable, or “sticky.”
How do you do that?
In a word: mnemonics. You want to create a strong visual association of the name in your brain.
Our brains are hardwired to remember strong visual images. The more strange and exaggerated the image, the better. For example, if you live in a city, you probably see lots of cars every day and don’t remember much about any single one of them. But if you see one on fire, that’s very unusual and so you’ll remember the image of that car for a long time. You’re even more likely to remember it if it’s bright yellow and expensive-looking.
Especially when you’re just getting started with the practice, it can take some time to come up with a good mnemonic for a person’s name, and it’s often not something you can stop to think about in the middle of an introduction.
Given that, whenever I meet someone with an unusual name, I recruit them to help me come up with a mnemonic and make it part of the conversation. For example, last year I met an Indian girl named Amardeep. I knew I’d have trouble remembering such a name so right away I asked her:
— How do you usually tell people to remember your name?
— Just remember “deep love.”
I met a guy here in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago at a comedy event. We chatted briefly at the start of the night and he told me his name was Bijon. I asked how I could remember that and he replied:
— Don’t worry about it. Nobody ever remembers my name.
— It’s like the mustard, right? Like dijon with a B?
— Yeah, that’s it.
A couple of hours later we ran into each other again and I addressed him by name. He was pleasantly surprised that I remembered. (And I still remember, two weeks later.)
The more vivid and crazy you can make the association, the better.
I once met a white, clean-cut French guy named Yamin and associated his name with Bob Marley singing “Jammin.” The image I visualized was this French dude with dread locks dancing to that song but singing it as, “I’m Yamin, I’m Yamin, I’m Yamin, I’m Yamin, and I hope you like Yamin, too!”
That image is so bizarre that it’s easy to recall whenever I think of that guy, and so his name has become unforgettable.
Mnemonics are useful for remembering common names, too. Sometimes a common name is the hardest to remember due to the fact it is so common. For example, the name Brian can easily slip your mind because there’s nothing very remarkable about it, and so you might have to work a bit harder to make a memorable association.
Here are some ideas:
- If the guy is smart, you can associate Brian with brain and imagine him with a massive, bulging cranium.
- If the guy is funny, you can associate him with Brian from Family Guy and imagine them hanging out together.
- If the guy seems like a bit of a meth head, you can associate him with Bryan Cranston 😛
Of course, sometimes the most memorable associations you come up with are ones you’ll want to keep to yourself!
3. Own Up
Here’s some advice from The Art Of Manliness on what to do if you forget the name of someone you’ve met before:
You simply ask the person, “Excuse me, what was your name again?”
The person will likely respond with their first name.
You then respond with a charming laugh and a smile, and say, “Oh no, I meant your last name.”
Personally, I don’t recommend doing that, for two reasons.
First, people can easily smell bullshit. Ever had someone forget your name but try pretend they didn’t? They think they’re being all clever referring to you as “buddy” or “you” or whatever, while you stand there fully aware of the game they’re playing and making a mental note of their sneaky behavior.
Faking it rarely works. You’re not going to fool most people. All you’ll do is make a fool of yourself and lose respect.
The second reason I don’t recommend faking it is because it’s a cowardly thing to do. Even if you’ve forgotten the name of someone you really shouldn’t have, it’s best to own that reality instead of trying to dance around it.
Here’s what I say when I forget someone’s name:
— I’m sorry, I’m totally blanking on your name right now. What was it again?
If it’s someone I’ve only met briefly before, I won’t even apologize:
— What was your name again?
Don’t feel bad if you forget someone’s name. Sure, people like when you remember, but very rarely will they dislike you for forgetting. I used to feel bad whenever I forgot a name, but then I realized it didn’t bother me much when someone forgot mine. It’s really not a big deal. Nobody expects you to be perfect.
(Okay, some people probably will get bent out of shape when you forget their name, but those are most likely the same people who scour the Internet looking for stories to be outraged about. They’re always going to be pissed off about something.)
I try to be very proactive about reintroducing myself to people whose names I’ve forgotten, rather than trying to avoid them and hoping I don’t get caught out. And being so proactive gives me more opportunities to practice hearing and remembering people’s names.
So the take-away here is to drop the act and always own up when you’ve forgotten someone’s name. The unspoken message you want to get across is, “Hey, it’s more important to me to have an honest interaction with you than it is to avoid a little bit of embarrassment or awkwardness.”
“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
This one is pretty simple: Stop telling yourself that you’re terrible at remembering people’s names. Because that’s not helping.
I often hear people say this kind of thing to the person who’s name they’ve forgotten:
— I’m sorry, I’m terrible with names.
That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine having someone walking around with you all day telling you that you’re a useless piece of shit. You’ll either start believing them or you’ll tell them to piss off.
Telling yourself you’re terrible at remembering names is the same thing, only more subtle. You have to change the tape. Try this instead:
— I’m trying to get better at remembering names.
That’s more empowering. You can even use it as conversation piece, like so:
— I’m sorry, I’m totally blanking on your name right now. What was it again?
— Ah cool, like the Lion King?
— Haha, yeah, exactly.
— I’m trying to get better at remembering people’s names. Any tips?
5. Make Lists
“We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.” Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein
I’ve been going to a lot of meetups in Amsterdam the past month or so, thereby meeting dozens of new people every week. Even using the tips I’ve mentioned above, it can be tough to remember all those names.
So I’ve taken to making lists.
Basically, after every meetup, I’ll whip out my phone and take a few minutes to note the date, the venue, and a list of the people I met there. I’ll also include a quick detail or two about each person to help me remember them later, and spell out their name phonetically if it’s difficult to pronounce.
This practice accomplishes two things. First, it’s an act of remembering in itself, and so the names I make a note of are more likely to stick with me. But second, and perhaps more important, is that I can look up the list and refresh my memory ahead of the next meetup with that particular group.
For example, I’ll be heading to an atheist meetup tonight in Amsterdam. The last one was two weeks ago and there were seven people there. I made sure to learn and memorize all their names during the meeting, and then afterwards I made a note of them on my phone. Before I head to the meeting tonight, I’ll look back over that list of names to remind myself of any I’ve forgotten.
(If this sounds like too much work for you, I get that. I’m a bit OCD so this kind of thing works well for me. If you’d rather not go to so much time and effort to remember people’s names, that’s fine. You’ll just have to practice #3 above more often.)
Bonus: How To Make Your Name More Memorable
Let’s wrap this up by flipping it around. Here are a few tips for making it easier for people to remember your name.
a) Offer Them A Mnemonic
I often introduce myself like this, words accompanied by a smile:
— I’m Niall, like the river, but spelled different.
If I just say my name and leave it at that, people are far more likely to forget or mispronounce it. But associating it with the River Nile helps it stick in people’s minds.
b) Correct Them Immediately
Whenever someone mispronounces your name or gets it completely wrong, speak up and correct them immediately. Your name matters, and people should get it right. Not only that, but if you let someone go on calling you the wrong name, they’re likely to feel foolish when they eventually discover their mistake.
They’ll also wonder why you failed to correct them for so long, and probably attribute it to you being unassertive or lacking self-respect.
People often mispronounce my name as Niles, and when they do I like to correct them by saying,
— My name is Niall, singular. There’s only one of me.
I also get called Neil a lot, and when that happens I like to pull the river card again:
— It’s Niall, like the river.
Be firm but gentle when correcting someone about your name. You want them to get it right, but you don’t want to come across too serious or self-important. I always make sure to have a smile on my face when saying the lines above.
c) Throw Them A Lifeline
Remember what I said earlier about knowing when someone has forgotten your name, even if they’re trying to pretend otherwise? Whenever you find yourself in that situation, throw the other person a bone by reintroducing yourself.
Just last Friday I bumped into a girl I’d met a week earlier. I remembered her name but suspected she wouldn’t remember mine as we’d only chatted very briefly that first time. I reintroduced myself like so:
— Hi, it’s Sara, isn’t it? I’m Niall. We met briefly last week.
— Of yeah, of course. How are you?
If you’re in a group of people and suspect someone has forgotten your name and doesn’t want to broadcast that fact, you can spare them the embarrassment by introducing yourself to someone else within earshot.
Another option is to drop your name into the conversation discreetly. Usually the easiest way to do that is in the form of a story. For example:
— You’ll never believe the email I got today. It started off, “Hi Niall, I was wondering if I could ask you a personal question…”
Just make sure it’s a good story 😉
d) Say Your Name Repeatedly
Lastly, try to mention your name several times when in conversation with someone you’ve just met. You don’t want to overdo it and sound like some weirdo talking about himself in the third person all the time, but drop it in wherever it feels natural, like when you’re telling a personal story.
Anything To Add?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Specifically:
- What other tips or tricks do you have for remembering people’s names?
- Do you disagree with anything I’ve written above?
- What else can you do when you forget someone’s name?
- Do you have any other tips or tricks for making your own name more memorable?
- Without scrolling back up, what was the name of the Indian girl I mentioned? 😉