Sometimes, even if you’re as clever as I am, you may mistake the name of a member of your spouse’s family. It’s a faux-pas that can make you cringe for two weeks, but it has its roots in our psyche. Our brain is programmed in such a way that remembering names is extremely difficult, despite our best efforts.

First of all, a name doesn’t carry any informational content. That’s why you can remember what a person does, how they make you feel, or what their qualities are, but not their name. All of this information is associated or linked in your brain. However, since we can’t link a name to anything specific, its retention in memory is much more challenging.

Remembering names can be a challenge due to several factors. One reason is the situation in which we meet someone new. It’s common to want to make a good impression when meeting someone, so we focus on what we say, our handshake, tone of voice, and topics we want to discuss.

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Short-term memory also plays an important role. It can only hold a limited amount of information and, as new information arrives, it prioritizes the newer information. Unless we “transfer” the information to long-term memory, we forget it, and it becomes much harder to recall.

The novelty effect is another factor. We tend to remember new information more easily than familiar information. So, shouldn’t it be easy to remember names? It can be, but only if we hear the name for the first time. If someone’s name is Peter, Michael, Veronika, or Katka, we’re likely to forget it before we even say it. However, if the name is unusual but not too complicated, we can remember it relatively quickly.

So, how can we remember the names of new people?

Use the name and address the person directly

A good practice is to address a new person by name directly upon greeting:

“I am Maria.”

“My name is Peter, pleased to meet you, Maria.”

After the introduction, continue the conversation. Look for opportunities to address the person (e.g. “What’s your opinion, Maria?”) and make use of them. After a few minutes, you will have the name memorized and avoid any embarrassing situations.

Create an association

If you can create an association (e.g. Martin sings well, Michal wears a bow tie), you make it easier to memorize the name. Suddenly, the name is not an empty piece of information but is associated with an activity or characteristic. Particularly specific associations work well. Other tricks, such as creating a rhyme, can also help, but be careful not to let the trick slip out of your mouth and offend the person.

Introduce them to someone else (lifehack)

If you missed the previous two tips and have already forgotten the name, you can try introducing the new person to someone you know. There is a good chance they will say their name again, giving you a second chance to memorize it. If they don’t say their name again… well, we might have to talk about how to handle embarrassing situations next time 🙂