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What was their name? Friday September 6, 2013

It’s right on the tip of your tongue. You can see their face; remember everything about them but the one thing you really need remember at that moment; their name. This is not an uncommon phenomenon and something that may happen to you frequently. Thankfully, these troublesome (and sometimes embarrassing) episodes are easily resolved.

If someone introduced themselves to you as James Bond it’s not likely to be a name you'll forget in a hurry. It’s a name that carries with it a whole plethora of associations. This means that when you try to recall their name, it’s easy to do so using imagery, memories, emotions and opinions connected to it. Unfortunately, not everyone has a name as memorable as James Bond.

By using a bit of creativity, every name, no matter how mundane or complicated can be made into something memorable.

The first tool to use is the Baker/baker paradox. This states that if someone were to tell you their name is Baker, you are less likely to remember it than if that person were to say that they earn their living as a baker. When someone tells you they are a baker you imagine all the things that bakers do, perhaps the flour covered aprons and the smell of fresh bread. If you change all Bakers to bakers you are more likely to remember them. This process takes something that is inherently non-memorable and makes it memorable with the help of a little creativity.

Some names are far too unique for that approach, but fear not. When a name is just on the tip of the tongue all it needs is a small reminder of their name and it’s right there. Turning a name into something that is slightly different but more memorable is a great tool to use. For example, my rather un-memorable name is Jake O’Gorman. By using a bit of creative license it could easily be turned into Joke O’Gormless. You can imagine me trying to explain a joke but doing so very badly due to the want of more intelligence. Someone with the surname of Patel could be imagined holding a giant Petal. Jones could be imagined being serenaded by Billy Paul with ‘Me and Mrs Jones’.

One of the most important factors to remember is that ‘the art of memory’, is ‘the art of attention’. If you want to remember something such as a name, a concept, a to-do list, then the most important thing is to spend a moment paying attention and then turn it into something memorable, no matter how abstract.

Happy memorizing.
Joke O’Gormless

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John Fri, Sep 6th 2013 @ 9:48am

An interesting article - and I wonder if there isn't also room to reflect on how it is for us when we forget names.

I am not good at remembering names (I know, this is my own attention deficit), but I also know that with all the goodwill in my body I can't fix this overnight, and will never be able to remember everybody's name I wish to with 100% recall.

That feels like a lot of pressure - so how about also reflecting that it's OK to forget someone's name sometimes. I don't mind at all if someone forgets my name, so why should I judge myself so harshly for forgetting other people's. And I've learned that when I look someone in the eye and tell them that I'm really pleased to see them again, but embarrassingly can not remember their name, that a new connection is immediately made that cuts through what would have previously been unspoken discomfort.

Of course, I can not guarantee that there will not be some people who are offended if I forget their name - but I ask you - if I am trying my best, is this my issue, or theirs?

Jake Fri, Sep 6th 2013 @ 2:08pm

Hi John,

Thank you for your response. I am glad you have such a positive attitude developed about forgetting people’s names, I think it is a great asset to have. However, I think many people, myself included may not feel entirely comfortable with admitting having forgotten someone’s name, especially on more than one occasion ( or if it is a name that you really should have remembered). Therefore, learning little tricks like those above can help jog the memory when we really need it. Of course, its OK not to remember someone’s name on occasion.

I can imagine how a connection could be made between you and someone else when you admit having forgotten their name. However, do you not feel the same thing could be said (and arguable more so) when you meet someone for perhaps the second time and you can remember their name? That person might feel more empowered that they were worth remembering. It is also worth noting that your approach might be slightly less effective having to admit a second or third time round that yet again their name escapes you.

I agree that we are never going to remember everyone’s name, especially overnight. As a result your approach is entirely commendable. To answer your closing question, if you are trying your best to remember someone’s name, but cannot, then it is entirely not your issue. However, the real question might therefore be; knowing about simple and easy to implement techniques like those above but not using them, are you really trying your best?


Christine Fri, Sep 6th 2013 @ 2:28pm

Names can be tricky to remember. Get them wrong and people can be so insulted.

My partner's mum called her two daughter "Daughter Number 1" and "Daughter Number 2". Both hated it; wished their mum could remember their names....

My mum would look at me and list lots of people she thought I might be....her sister Freda, her own mum, her Great Aunt Mary....and that was before her dementia kicked in making names fly away like fairy dust from her brain and memory.

My partner's mum, with severe dementia forgot she even had a second daughter.

On another note, a colleague I once worked with would break into song every time he saw a particular pupil. Her name was Esther Day. My colleague, broke into The Beatles "Yesterday" to the total bemusement of my pupil who had learning difficulties and who had never heard of The Beatles. He thought it terribly amusing.

My Dad thought changing names in order to remember them was a huge joke. His future daughter in law, Louise, became forever "Louse". His best friend's son, Nigel became "Niggle". My friend's son Reuven was always "Roofing Tile"...

Names can be very personal and very much the outward, public face of who we are and how we see ourselves.

When we have such low esteem ourselves, we must be very aware of how others are feeling and really try not to hurt others by either forgetting or corrupting their names.

I do my best, I know I'm not always successful, but my strategy is to be as open and honest as I can. I usually say "I'm so sorry, I know you have told me your name, but I'm afraid I've forgotten it....would you mind telling me again?"

It seems to work...mostly!

I am interested to know how others cope with this issue?

John Mon, Sep 9th 2013 @ 8:44am

Hi Jake

I definitely agree with you!! I feel that remembering people's names is very important (and I can find it affirming to be remembered), and so your article and insights are very helpful. I also wish I was better at it - and will be using your techniques when I remember to do so.

And I'm also happy that I've have got to a point where I can also forgive myself when I forget someone's name - and by being congruent in the moment about my shortcoming means I can paradoxically often move beyond it with a person.

Hi Christine

I think the relationship of names to intimacy and self-esteem is hugely important, as you point out.

I think intention is everything in that regard - when we use someone's name respectfully we are trying to acknowledge and truly "meet" that person. And as you say, some people will intentionally avoid or corrupt using someone's name precisely to avoid that intimacy, and keep a barrier between you both for their own defensive / self-protective purposes.

When I am congruent about having forgotten someone's name, and within that my positive intention towards that person, then there is no room for that person to interpret me not using their name as put-down or dismissal. So conversely self-esteem is promoted as the other sees me striving to truly recognise them despite my own shortcomings.

And interestingly, I think that is precisely why I now try to be honest when I have forgotten. I used to bumble through conversations and not use someone's name in order to avoid embarrassment - but then I began to feel uncomfortable that in doing so I was not truly acknowledging that person, and the quality of our interaction would be diminished. Now I try to take responsibility for having forgotten, and in doing so, provide the chance for a renewed and more authentic exchange.

Finally, often when I share my own shortcomings, it also allows the other person to re-acquaint themselves with my name; I have modelled that it's OK to swap names again and in those cases where the other person has also forgotten my name then I experience a shared relief. i.e. I have taken the first, risky, step on behalf of us both. I have survived so far :-)

Anonymous Mon, Sep 9th 2013 @ 6:47pm

An interesting article. Thankyou.
Kevin Phillips-Bong.

Anonymous Tue, Sep 10th 2013 @ 6:23pm

I agree with you John. The point is not feeling worse cause not remember a name. In my opinion you can talk without knowing his or her name. I like your helpful post Jack and I'll try to use your tips not only for people names, also for streets and stuff like this.

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