It’s all in a name

Mei Carter, (one of my twin goddaughters) just finished her seven-weeks stint as a camp counselor at Summers at LREI. She was responsible for handling thirteen rambunctious five-year-old boys and girls who spent a full day at camp doing a variety of activities, such as "Weird Science," "Blind Contour Drawing," and "Watercolor the City." Out of curiosity, I asked Mei how she managed to learn their names at the beginning of camp. 

The need for learning names quickly

Mei acknowledged it was a challenge at first as her campers represented a cross section of New York’s diverse population with kids coming from Ethiopia, Greece, Japan, and the US. Luckily, the first two days every camper wore a name badge. This facilitated her memorizing such tricky names as Yididiya, Archimedes, Nur, Olympia, and Isamu. It also helped that Mei is nineteen and possesses a young, nimble mind!

Given these were youngsters, Mei felt compelled to quickly master their names. Not only would it show that each camper was unique and special in their leader’s mind, but it would also build immediate rapport with the group.  “I would repeat their name several times and then try to find a word or image association to help me retrieve their names,” Mei thoughtfully explained. 

Here’s how Mei went about meeting the challenge of remembering the kids’ unusual names. “During my second session of camp, my head counselor, Shanna, and I had a new camper named Yididiya join our homegroup. I remember that morning introducing myself to Yididiya and her mother and immediately noticing that she wore a crown that had Princess Elsa (from the Disney movie "Frozen") on it. I used her crown as my way to put a name to her face. Throughout the camp session, she would wear the crown, which was helpful, but by the second day, I had a clear memory of her name and the correct pronunciation!”

The value of getting it right

Remembering someone’s name correctly matters. Why? Because it shows you care. It naturally makes people feel good to hear their name pronounced properly, especially if it is a difficult one.  There are studies that say hearing your name activates your brain. It follows that people will pay greater attention to what you are saying if you get their name right—thus the urgency of Zoe’s learning her high-energy campers’ names quickly.

What happens when you don’t

Conversely, misremembering a name can have negative consequences. It shows you were not actively listening during the initial introduction. In addition, you run the risk of appearing rude and offending the individual. “Guess I didn’t make much of an impression” people tend to think even when the oversight when you blank on a name is unintentional.

Obstacle course when making an acquaintance

There are many sidetracking things going on during the process of meeting someone for the first time.  Not only are you taking in the person’s face, physique, and clothing but you may also be contending with multiple conversations around you, or background music, plus processing your own paralysis for low name retention. And, then there is the proverbial habit of focusing on what you plan to say next in the conversation. In my opinion, this is the deadliest of all distractions from concentrating on the new person’s name.

Many people confess to regularly forgetting names, myself included. This hazard afflicts both our private and business lives.  Joan Brower, one of New York City’s top communications and marketing experts, laments that it is one of her shortcomings, too. “It has always seemed that the very moment I am introduced, a new name leaves my mind like water through a sieve.”

Repetition to the rescue 

How does Joan deal with this dilemma? Her trick is to repeat, repeat, repeat.  “What I began doing to avoid the embarrassment and insult of forgetting names was to immediately play it back to the person I was meeting, and to do it repeatedly (i.e., "It's so nice to meet you, Buster. What business are you in, Buster? Buster, do you live in Manhattan?" and so on.)  It has helped.” 

Wine guru, Lars Leicht, also suffers from bad name recall. “My memory is funny with names. When I am introduced to someone the first time, no matter how hard I try, their name is gone within a few minutes. Vanished, often without a trace. Busy processing other details about the encounter, I guess. If I’m at a complete blank, I’m unsure of variations – was it Doug or Dan? Or was it Greg? Damn… But then when I get it the second, maybe the third time, it never leaves. I could not see the person for five years until they walk on an elevator out of the blue and I’ll remember their name.” 

Tricks can mess you up 

As hard as Lars tries, sometimes the memory tricks backfire on him. “For example, one time I met a woman named Caitlin, and figured I would remember her name easily because I have a favorite cousin named Caitlin. But my brain picked that up and ran with it, and I started calling her Meghan – which is the name of cousin Caitlin’s sister! Of course, then it became a running joke when I explained it to her, and now I’ll never forget my new friend Meghan Caitlin.” 

Here are a few simple tricks to use the next time you meet a new person:

Spell out the person’s name.  Especially if the name is uncommon, ask the person to spell it out for you.

Write it down.  Even better than just adding it to your contact list on your smart phone, writing it out by hand nurtures both comprehension and retention. One of my favorite former employees, Chandni Patel, shares her technique. “I usually try to write it down as quickly as I can. Having a hard first name myself makes it easier for people to always forget mine, so I’m off the hook,” she rationalizes when she forgets theirs.  But she still faithfully writes new names down.

Repeat the name several times.  It is not difficult to say a name multiple times during a conversation. Take a hint from Joan who suggests reintroducing the person to someone else, yet another way to repeat the name.

If the pronunciation of the name is unusual, ask the person to pronounce it again for you. Then repeat it back to them until it is correct.  It shows you care when you make the extra effort.

Ask for a business card.  Read the card in front of the person—don’t just pocket it!—and repeat the name out loud.

Create a mental picture with someone famous or someone you know well. My granddaughter, Nicole Lauber, explains how she uses this technique. “Whenever I meet someone new, I’ll always picture that person meeting someone else I know with the same name. For example, if I met someone named Marsha, I would envision the new person meeting you. And if I don’t know anyone with their name, I’ll envision the person meeting someone who’s famous/well-known with their same name. Something about the visualization of two people together with the same name always helps me remember!”

Really look at the person’s face.  Try to find something unique about the individual’s personal appearance, such Sara with the nose ring.  Then, connect the name with the visual cue when you meet him/her the next time.

Try remembering at least the first letter of the person’s name. When my late husband, Ed Lauber, would forget a name, he would invariably fall back on the alphabet technique.  While it can be time-consuming, it would always eventually produce the right name. Start at the top with “A” and work your way down. “Z, I knew it started with Z,” Ed would gleefully announce like a triumphant little boy catching the golden ring

when he finally landed on the right letter and recalled the name. “Got it! Z for Zelma!” 

If you use social media, ask if you can friend the person on Facebook or Twitter.  Often this comes with a photo and links to their personal sites.  This helps you recall their name, face, and personal interests (also handy for starting a conversation!)  the next time you see them. 

Make a conscious decision to care.  Once you’ve invested in trying to remember the name, it becomes a more natural process. Try making it a habit! Stop copping out with “I’m so bad with names” as it indirectly shows you don’t care. 

Note to self! Focus and stop paying attention to what you want to say next.

When all else fails, politely ask the person to tell you their name again.  Smile and don’t make a big deal out of it by overly apologizing.  The French have a wonderful expression: S'il vous plait, rappelez-moi votre nom.  Please remind me of your name. People will not be offended if you handle this graciously.

There are times, however, when all this gets tricky, particularly when people change their name.  I know. I did.  Growing up, my family Americanized the pronunciation of their Italian last name.  Our family pronounced Palanci as Pah-lan-see. As the name is uncommon, many Americans would hear something they were more familiar with, such as Poh-lan-ski.  With no disrespect to the Polish, I got tired of correcting people.  So, around the age of 30 I decided to pronounce my name the Italian way with the last syllable as “chee.”  It sounded pretentious at first especially with people who knew me earlier. Eventually, I grew into the name and even though it causes problems with the spelling— Palanchi being the most common mistake!— it’s worth it to embrace my heritage. I have also learned to graciously give my older friends a pass by acknowledging both pronunciations.

Given how important names are in life, parents need to pay special attention when they choose them for their children.  My spinning instructor, Amy Chu, is expecting her first child in October.  During the NBA playoffs this year, she jokingly announced to our class that she and her husband negotiated the terms on who gets to name their firstborn: whoever’s team won the playoff. Her husband’s choice was Kawhi Leonard after the gifted player from the Toronto Raptors (recently traded to the LA Clippers.) Amy’s choice was Jordan, “After Michael Jordan.  You know who he is, right?” she asked looking me straight in the eye with a surly tone but broad smile.

Alas, Amy’s team lost. However, she’s a spunky one. Amy’s holding out for renegotiating new terms for naming rights. “I believe screams from the delivery room will give me a definite edge.” Let’s hope so, as a name with such immediate recall as Jordan will offer her son’s potential friends a clear advantage in remembering his name.  Kawhi, on the other hand? If you’re not an avid sports fan, you may need to start at the beginning of the alphabet.

To prove my point, the photo for today’s post reflects a compilation of multiple misspellings of my name.  While some of these could be chalked up to my bad penmanship, others are clearly because people were not paying attention.