Names are my nemesis. Names partition me, hold me at bay, isolate me. This has nothing to do with “old-timers disease.” Spinning through the empty Rolodex of my brain for a name has been a life-long paranoia. Many people prefer to enter a crowded room in the company of a good and trusted friend; I prefer to walk in alone. I dread— absolutely dread— the inevitable moment when I lock eyes with someone whom I know but my companion doesn’t. My brain spins, I flush from the strain of mental aerobics. When I’m lucky enough to actually seize upon the correct name, I’m so stunned and worn out that the follow-up conversation turns to unintelligible babble. I love name tags. I willingly submit to sticky, hand-scrawled labels. I go to extraordinary measures to avoid introductions.
Name recall tricks abound. I found Helen Coster’s list at Forbes.com. It’s a good list. I’ve tried most of these:
1. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. The most surefire strategy is to repeat the person’s name–both in your head, and out loud–as soon as possible after you’ve been introduced. Occasionally use the person’s name in conversation. “Pleasure to meet you, Bob,” or “Bob, so good to see you.” Don’t overdo it, of course, but don’t worry that Bob will recoil, either. He’d rather you remember his name than not. (Oh ya, I’ve tried this one and experienced limited success.)
2. Find The Trigger. Try to associate names with things people tell you about themselves (careers, hobbies) that will trigger the sound or association of the name in your mind. Fred likes to fish, Margarita runs a bar–you get the idea. “You have to search in the moment for something familiar,” says Spiegel. “It’s a simple trick, but it just sticks.”(Yup, tried it…I concentrate so hard on thinking of an association that my eyes glaze and I lose the thread of that crucial first conversation.)
3. Word Play. Let the words do the work for you. Mnemonic devices (Dale works in sales) work nicely, as does alliteration (Joann from Jersey). (Like #2, great if you’re quick enough to make the association without losing the conversation.)
4. Speak Up. Embarrassing as it seems, don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat his or her name. Start out with a compliment, such as “I’ve had so much fun talking with you, and I’ve completely forgotten your name.” If you realize you’ve blanked on a name a few seconds after introduction, just say: “I’m sorry, I missed your name.” (I do this all the time! But it doesn’t help when I see that person two months later.)
5. Picture This. Turn someone’s name into an image that you can remember. When you meet Shirley, think of a Shirley Temple. Don’t laugh–it works. (Again, same problem as numbers 2 & 3. You’ve gotta be quick with your associations.)
6. Spell It Out. Another imagery-based tactic: Ask someone to spell out his or her name. If you can picture the letters in your mind, you’ll have a better chance of remembering the name. A derivation on that: Imagine the person’s name written across his forehead, like a billboard. (I’ve done this occasionally when confronted with a particularly unusual name that I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. It doesn’t seem to help me with later recall, though.)
7. Lead the Way. If you know that your name will be hard to remember or pronounce, do other people a favor and help them out. They’ll return the favor–or, if you’re chatting with a Mike or a Bob, maybe they’ll make some big production out of their own common name, making it stick in your mind. (If I can pull my poor sore brain out of the fog of spinning that empty Rolodex, I do this. I really try to introduce myself first to help other name-challenged people. But again, I get so wrapped up in my fear that I’m slow on the uptake, often missing the opportunity to be helpful.)
8. Put Pen to Paper. It’s not enough to write down a person’s name as soon as possible after meeting them. Record the name in a “new contacts” file, and include when and where you met.(Oh, ya, this’ll work. “Excuse me while I type your name in my Droid” This, I haven’t tried and doubt that I ever will.)
10. Prime the Pump. You spy a person, whose name you’ve forgotten, making her way toward you. What to do? If you’re speaking with someone you know, introduce them right off the bat. The newcomer will probably introduce herself on her own. Problem solved. (I’m more likely to duck my head and run the other way, praying that the name will come to me if I just think hard enough!)
Another tip that I’ve read and tried to follow is to stop thinking and stressing about yourself and your problems and focus genuinely on the person you have just met. I try. I really try to stay focused and interested, make eye contact, repeat the person’s name. That may all work for the evening that I’m there with them. But a day, a week, a month, a year later? I’m toast. All that hard work has been lost under layers of new information.
There is one couple in particular that I have met countless times at dinner parties. They are a cute couple: fun to talk to, friendly, and warm. When I am by myself, I wing it. I march right up to Jim and Jackie and initiate a conversation as if we were the best of friends, all the while wondering what in hell their names are. But the names, at that point, are superfluous. All I need is to remember a bit about their hobbies, passions, and politics. But when I’m accompanied by another person, I know I will be on the spot to come up with a name. I have ducked and run from this most gracious pair more than once during the past few years. It happened again last night. I walked into the theatre and there they were, standing in the clot of people waiting to enter the hall. They both looked right at me and smiled and I smiled back and dashed like a frightened rabbit into the lady’s room where I bashed my head on the stall in frustration. Fortunately, when I emerged, they had moved on.
When I got home last night I lay in bed trying to conjure their names. It bugged me so much that I actually got up at 2:30 AM and logged onto Facebook, hoping I could find them under some common friend’s lists. No luck. BUT…in the process, I think I got their names. Will I remember Jim and Jackie the next time we cross paths? I doubt it. But I will try.