Why it’s so hard to remember people’s names

Our names are an incredibly important part of our identity. They carry deep personal, cultural, familial, and historical connections. They also give us a sense of who we are, the communities in which we belong, and our place in the world.

So why do we forget them, mispronounce them, and even call our kids by the wrong ones?

Remembering names

It has happened to all of us, we are introduced to someone new and a minute later we forget their name, forcing us to either swallow our pride and ask again or languish in uncertainty forever.

Why are we so bad at remembering names?

There are a few potential explanations, says Charan Ranganath, the director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California, Davis.

“The simplest explanation: you’re just not that interested or motivated to learn that person’s name”, Ranganath says. “You don’t at the time think it’s important.”

But this isn’t always the case. Often you really do want to remember and find yourself forgetting anyway.

“You’re not only remembering the name, but you’re remembering the name in relation to a face. Even if you get the information in, which we call encoding, you might not be able to find the information because there’s so much competition between other names and other faces in your memory” Ranganath says. “People are often overconfident, and they underestimate how hard it will be later on.”

So, what can we do to be better at remembering names;

  1. Using a Mnemonic Device or memory aid can be helpful. Remembering a common name like John might be difficult, for example, but if you can use an association and mentally categorize someone as John the Jogger, it may stick out more.
  2. Finding ways to test yourself, even as the conversation is ongoing, may also be helpful. Take note of the person’s name when they say it, then quiz yourself on it a few minutes, or even seconds, later. The act of actually testing yourself on the name will help you retain it better in the long term.
  3. Finally, repeating the person’s name after they say it may also trigger a more powerful effect than listening alone. If you say it out loud, it’s actually easier to remember than if you just passively take it in

Mixing names up

When I was a child my granny called me Amy. It wasn’t because she didn’t know my name or because she bequeathed me a substitute.  No, she called me Amy because that was the name of her beloved dog and she always mixed our names up.

Equally my mum on many occasions called me by my brother’s name, Jonathan. Now Amy and Emma I get, they are similar, but Jonathan and Emma have no resemblance, so I simply thought my poor mam was going a bit dotty. That was until I had children. Sorry mam.

Today, I have two beautiful boys, whose names I chose and love and yet not a single day goes by when I don’t call one by the other and vice versa.

But why? Well, it turns out there is a really lovely reason.

New research reveals that getting your kids’ and pets names muddled up simply shows how much you love them.

According to a review in Memory and Cognition that studied the phenomenon of misnaming, it found that misnaming tends to happen with people you have an equally close relationship with and it happens most to… guess who ….  Moms!

But it’s not because moms have a bad memory. It’s because of the way our brains store information.

Our brain organizes information in a “semantic network” in which similar things are grouped together. It’s kind of like file folders for different categories of people, places, things, and experiences.

The people you love most (i.e., family members) are all in one folder, so sometimes saying the right name, even if that person is right in front of you, is difficult. You have to shuffle through the items in the folder until you grab the right one

Pronouncing Names

Author and CEO Ruchika Tulshyan says she has had her name mispronounced her whole life. Sometimes she even made restaurant reservations under the name Rachel to avoid the pain and shame. But in the past few years, she has begun speaking up — and even correcting friends who have been mispronouncing her name for years.⁠ Below are her tips for getting the pronouncing of names write.

“If you’re not sure how to pronounce someone’s name, the best solution is to simply ask.  If someone you know has been mispronouncing your name for years”, she says, “It’s not too late to bring it up.”

Learning to pronounce a colleague’s name is not just a common courtesy, but an important effort in creating an inclusive workplace. When you’re unfamiliar with how to say someone’s name, ask them to pronounce it. Listen carefully to where they put emphasis, and where the inflections are. Repeat after them once or twice, not more. If you know you will interact with them often, make a note on how to phonetically pronounce their name. Once you’ve heard the correct pronunciation, thank the person, and move on. Don’t spend a long time talking about how unfamiliar you are with their name. If you realize that you’ve been saying a colleague’s name wrong, apologize and ask for the correct pronunciation.

A good rule of thumb is to say, “I’m sorry I mispronounced that. Could you please repeat your name for me?” And if you hear others mispronounce the person’s name when they’re not around, step in and correct them gently. A simple statement like “I think it’s pronounced…” will save everyone potential discomfort later on.

You can read her fill wonderful article here :  “If You Don’t Know How to Say Someone’s Name, Just Ask,” By Ruchika Tulshyane

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