“Why can’t I remember the name of someone I JUST MET?” “Is there something wrong with me.”
Nope. There is nothing at all wrong with you. When meeting someone new, remembering their name all comes down to two things:
1.) ATTENTION and 2.) ASSOCIATION.
Focused attention is the first step toward remembering. Focusing your mental energy has limitations. For one, you only have so much mental energy to go around. Once you’ve committed too much of it to one task, there may not be enough left to focus on anything else.
Attention is best understood using a visual metaphor. Imagine you are watching a Broadway show. In the opening scene, a magnificently bright spotlight shines down on one singular person. As the show goes on though, lights illuminate the entire stage and a cast of characters and other visuals wonders of the stage are revealed!
When we meet someone new, they need to take the spotlight. And frankly, most of us are not able to put the person front and center. Three characteristics of attention further reveal why we often fail at remembering names.
- SELECTION. The spotlight (our attention) needs to be directed singularly at the person. This is a challenge despite our best intentions. Any number of distractions may prevent us from focusing. For example, an impatient child might tug at our pant leg and prevent us from hearing the name. Our own thoughts can be just as distracting. Often when we begin to listen to someone’s name we get in our own way of remembering by worrying about our next response. This shift of attention to our thoughts may lead to missing the name and conversation.
- SHIFT. If we are lucky enough to notice our attention being divided, we do have a chance to shift our focus back to the conversation. I suggest immediately repeating their name back to them. You have only one chance in the conversation to recover and this is it. If you get it wrong the person can kindly correct you, keeping you on course for a successful interaction.
- DIVIDE. As the conversation begins to flow it is normal for your attention to drift back and forth between the person and your own thoughts. Dividing your attention in this way allows you to ASSOCIATE their name.
Association means connecting. No one is particularly good at remembering a name without a good connection. Psychologist Gillian Cohen refers to this problem as the Baker-baker paradox. Remembering that a woman’s last name is baker is much harder than remembering she is a baker. Why? Because baker the job is very visual. Come on, you know you are thinking about bread baking…..and of course…the hat!
Most associations won’t happen so easily though. You need to connect the name to something interesting or unique. This can be quickly done by associating a feature of the person with their name (maybe he is wearing a hat of a particular sport’s team you like, perhaps you like her earrings). Asking them about this feature will hook the name in your memory and give you a better chance to remember it. When I meet a new student I ask them something about themselves. This usually sparks a brief conversation and I can hook the details in memory along with their name.
In a high stakes event like a job interview, you should do anything in your power to remember the interviewer’s name. Even if it is some goofy rhyme or visual (that you probably won’t share with them) that hooks your memory, use it!
Yes, this all takes time, attention, and effort BUT a little work in the front end could save you the embarrassment of forgetting.