Bill Kirby

Online news editor for The Augusta Chronicle.

Why nobody remembers names

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The Name Game

Seth Benson invited me to speak to his fellow Rotar­ians the other day, and I again faced that common shortcoming most of us have in such situations. I cannot remember names.

I believe name tags will never be replaced by modern technology because just about everyone I know admits: “I am terrible with names.”

We all are. Anyone can brag, “I never forget a face.” But you and I know that’s the easy part. It’s connecting that face with a name that confounds us.

Understanding why is not that easy to explain. Years ago, I clipped an article by Dr. Barry Gordon in Brainwork, a neuroscience newsletter favored by cerebral newspapermen.

He said remembering names is hard because we tend to associate too many memories with a person, though we really only need one – his or her name.

All the facts jam the mental interstate and things come to a standstill – frustrating us because the name is right there … on the tongue’s tip, but won’t pop out.

We confuse the process by bringing in so much data at once.

Naturally, we would have more “associations” with someone we know intimately. That leads to an embarrassing mental phenomenon – we often forget, on the spur of the moment, someone we actually know.

He cited a study in which 68 percent of the mental “blocks” people suffered involved the names of friends and family they knew fairly well. Stress and fatigue contribute, Gordon said, and this name block problem gets worse as you get older.

Young people are more likely to remember people, but they suffer another problem called “interloping.” This is when you’re trying to remember, say, the name “Kevin” and “Ken” keeps popping into your head. (Close but no cigar.)

So what do you do when you’re at a luncheon and a person walks up, greets you warmly and pauses for an introduction to your spouse or business associate?

Stall. When you’ve got the name on the tip of your tongue, Gordon says, don’t try so hard.

Think of something else, make a remark about the weather. In fact, I believe most weather conversations involve people who can’t remember each other’s names.

By taking the pressure off the memory bank, the name will actually come to you more quickly.

And if it doesn’t, do what I do. Introduce the person to someone else you know, pause, and wait for the other person to introduce himself.

If that doesn’t work, look over his shoulder, pretend you suddenly see someone you recognize, excuse yourself, then walk over to greet this (surprised) person warmly and wait to see how they handle it.

The best defense is a good offense.


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