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“Sorry,” I said. “I’m just not good with names.”
I had run into someone I’d met a few weeks earlier, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t remember her name. Like a lot of other people, I often made this excuse for having forgotten a name.
It was fine. She laughed and said she didn’t remember my name either. She echoed my sentiment, saying she was also bad with names. We chatted for a few minutes then said our goodbyes. As I walked away, what I’d said about not being good with names floated back to the surface of my mind, and immediately I heard a voice somewhere in my head sternly tell me, “Don’t ever say that about yourself again.”
I was surprised at what I’d heard, but I knew where it came from. I’d been reading a lot of self-help books, and the term “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” had come up again and again. A sociologist named Robert K. Merton coined this term back in the 1940s. It basically means that what you say about yourself tends to become true. Over the years since Merton introduced this theory, psychologists have proven it over and over. What I’d been reading had led me to believe that I needed to stop saying negative things about myself.
I decided to do an experiment—to see if this concept could help me remember names better.
First (and I know this may sound strange, but it seemed like the right thing to do) I apologized to myself for having said I was bad with names. Then I said, “I am actually very good with names. I tend to remember names easily.” From that day on, whenever I met someone, I did my best to focus on his or her name as soon as I heard it. I came up with strategies to help me cement names into my brain. For example: a young woman I met at church is named Jessica; she has almond-shaped eyes. I have a cousin named Jessica who also has almond-shaped eyes. Once I made this connection, I never forgot “church Jessica’s” name again.
Unusual names are often the easiest for me to remember. I recently met a man named Arun; my daughter had a friend in high school with that name; I made the connection between the two, and although I had to ask Arun’s wife to remind me of her less-unusual name, Arun’s name was immediately fixed in my brain.
The opposite is also true: the most common names sometimes require more effort to remember. I think it’s because part of my brain says, “Oh, that’s an easy name; I’ve got it.” And then, the second I turn away from the person, the name escapes me. I know a young man whose name is John, but for some reason I kept calling him Mike. Finally I began envisioning him standing next to my daughter’s college boyfriend, whose name is John. Now I always get his name right.
Foreign names and the names parents invent for their children can be really tough to remember, too. But going the extra mile to learn them is so satisfying because people with unique names are accustomed to people not remembering them; they seem so pleased and surprised when I call them by name. If I have to ask a person to spell a name, and especially if I write it down to help me remember it, it doesn’t make me look stupid; it actually makes the person see that I value them enough to WANT to remember their name.
If I’m struggling with a person’s name, I’ll talk to them about it. Sometimes having a conversation about their name, perhaps hearing why their parents chose it, is all I need to get the information to the level of my brain where long-term memories are stored.
Because I recognize that remembering names is a challenge for everyone, I choose not to put myself down if I forget one—or if it just hasn’t taken root in my brain yet. I have no problem now with saying, “Please remind me of your name.” After I hear the response, I often say, “I’m good with names, but I may have to ask you one or two more times before it sticks.” And when I ask for their name again, it frees them up to ask what my name is again. So it’s a win-win.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned from this project is that there really is power in what I say about myself. Saying positive things about who I am—about my character, my abilities, my worth—is actually enabling me to become a person I like more.
And when I’m tempted to saying something negative or unkind about myself, I put it to this test:
If I wouldn’t say it about someone I love, I’d better not say it about myself.
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