Basic Communication Tips: Remember, Remember, Remember My Name

January 20, 2015

Remember the “Under the Bamboo Tree” scene from “Meet Me in St. Louis”? Many people must have fond memories of Judy Garland’s adorable O’Brien co-star. “Nice to see you, Margaret,” they’ll say, regardless of how large I write KATHERINE on my name tag. “Call me Peg,” I say, resigned to my fate.

If I must be mistaken for another O’Brien, Margaret isn’t too bad.  (Although I bet nobody ever calls Conan “Pat.”)  But remembering someone’s name is so key to any social interaction—both personal and professional. When you remember someone’s name it tells them you enjoyed meeting them and that you truly listened to them. 

I must confess I am terrible with names and faces. Xerox once hosted a reception featuring the author of an amazing book on memorization skills. He went around the first group of tables in the ballroom and asked each person to say his or her name. He then successfully recalled the names of 30 people he’d just met. Unfortunately I can’t remember his name or the name of his book.

Over the years, I have used many common-sense strategies for remembering people’s names. Upon meeting them, I try to repeat their names: “Nice to meet you, BILL.” Sometimes I try to use a mnemonic device, such as associating the person’s name with a popular song or show tune: “Nice to meet you, BILL,” I’ll say, while thinking to myself, “Nice to meet you, BILL, kisses and love won’t carry me ‘til you marry me, BILL.”

Of course this can be rather awkward on those occasions when I realize I have spoken my inner dialogue out loud. Generally the other person then advances the conversation with a trenchant observation such as: “How interesting, Katherine. May I present my wife, Mrs. BILL Smith.”

Lifehacker’s Philip Guo has some handy tips for remembering people’s names. I liked his suggestion to use spelling as a pretext to have someone repeat their name: “If you want to practice saying it out loud a few times, ask [someone about their] name. ‘Sasha, that's spelled S-A-S-H-A?’ or ‘Sorry, I'm not so good with names. How do you spell that?’ The purpose of these questions is to simply get you and Sasha to repeat her name a few times to help you to remember.”

I have tried this with mixed results:

STRANGER: Hello Katherine. I recognize your picture from “American Printer" and I think you are awesome. By the way, my name is Pat.

ME: Nice to meet you, PAT. I’m not so good with names. How do you spell that?

Do you have any tips for me? I am all ears!

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