One of my most annoying shortcomings is that I have a terrible head for names. The moment someone is introduced to me, I’ll say something to the effect of “Very happy to meet you,” and then focus almost immediately on some detail of his or her physical appearance — a hairdo, or a singular quality of the face, or some interesting wardrobe minutiae. Almost always, this leads me to distraction, such that the person’s name never fully registers; in fact, it usually disappears from my memory immediately, like a swipe of rubbing alcohol evaporating tracelessly on the skin.
This is bad. It’s a horrible practice, especially for someone, like me, who works in a large company, where I’m meeting new co-workers all the time, as many as three or four a week. The problem is compounded by the fact that I might meet a colleague for the first time today and not see that person again for weeks or even months… Usually not until some inopportune moment, when it becomes achingly inconvenient to be so forgetful. Like waiting for an elevator together, or finding myself face-to-face with that person in a small meeting; times when not addressing a person by first name is conspicuous and awkward. As often as not, the victim of my interpersonal amnesia demonstrates that, unlike me, he or she has courtesy, grace and mental stamina enough to remember my name. Makes me feel like an ass.
The Resistance of Memory
I’ve tried a few different mental tricks to defuse this, such as repeating each new acquaintance’s name several times to myself as we meet, or using his or her name almost immediately, or creating an associative mnemonic. But for whatever reason, these methods don’t work that well. I often forget to use the trick at all, or I fail to realize that the person’s name has failed to register at all until later, when it’s too late to ask again without embarrassment.
About a year ago, I began doodling little sketches of newly acquainted colleagues in my notebook (I attend lots of meetings) in the hopes of capturing immediately some memorable qualities that can be referenced later. As it turns out, this is a pretty effective way of remembering who’s who, provided I get some reasonable likeness of the person down. I use whatever amount of draughting skill I can muster in these drawings, but I’m not shooting for carnival-quality caricatures that can be hung on the wall of a basement bar. Rather, I’m just going for an impression, just enough emphasis on distinguishing characteristics to help my power of recall at a later date.
There’s two tricks to this: first, you’ve got to use the same notebook nearly every day. At the start of the new year, for instance, I switched to a brand new notebook for a fresh start, and immediately felt adrift without my visual crib notes. For a while I had to carry both last year’s and this year’s notebooks with me, sort of like that guy who can’t go anywhere without his Dungeon Master’s Guide. So if you can’t hang onto a single note-taking book without losing it, this technique will do you little good.
Losing a notebook with these kinds of doodles is ill-advised, as well, by caveat number two: caricatures can be deadly. Just as there are many people who have an aversion to photographs, many others don’t take kindly to superficial, reductive distillations of physical appearance on paper. A drawing that emphasizes some prominent feature for the benefit of memory can be very offensive to the subject, should he or she ever get a look at it — in spite of the fact that I mean no harm whatsoever as I create them. This is part of the reason why I try to draw these fairly small, and as quickly as possible, avoiding the appearance of careful laboring over the likenesses. Also, I never, ever show them to anyone; the potential embarrassment is too great. That is, unless I remove the names to protect the innocent, as I’m doing here.