February 2, 2019

Stop Being Bad with Names

This post was last updated on February 4th, 2019 at 10:02 am

Stop Being Bad with Names

“I’m terrible with names.” It seems like a very common statement. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. I’ve always prided myself with knowing people’s names and yet I’ve never been as intentional as I ought to be.  There have been 3 sources that I’ve found recently that have addressed this theme to the degree that it’s now become a personal mission of mine to pay better attention to people’s names. 


The first is a reading of a classic book by Dale Carnegie “How to Win Friends and Influence People” The book, while focused on business, offers some simple, timeless truths about relationships. Most of it seems like common sense but the depth and specifics stated in the book are great reminders not only for business folks but anyone who works with people. 
Specifically the chapter on names. Here are a few quotes:

“Most people don’t remember names, for the simple reason that they don’t take the time and energy necessary to concentrate and repeat and fix names indelibly in their minds. They make excuses for themselves; they are too busy.”

Of course, I could go into a whole diatribe about busy. But I’m also guilty here. I need to make a better effort. 

“…the average person is more interested in his or her own name than in all the other names on earth put together…. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

This is pure science.  Hearing your name activates unique brain activity that can have hugely positive results. Conversely, not knowing someone’s name can signal a lack of interest in that person. I’m not saying that’s always the case but in the same way being late is often a sign of disrespect, so is not knowing someone’s name.

This led me to a second source. ‘It means something’: When to correct people who get your name wrong
Typically newer immigrants to Canada and the US face this all the time. Lazy people, myself included, who just want a name they’re familiar with want others to change their name to something easy. Sadly immigrants and anyone with a unique name most often comply. This article is about a girl upset with her name and how often people struggle with it. Like many, she is uncomfortable with others discomfort and her solution is to anglicize her name. Her mother’s response is spot on;

“Aduba argued no one at school could pronounce her name. Her mother replied, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

That one hit home. I’ve been guilty of this one. After reading this, I visited my daughter in Toronto and met her roommate “Cher”. I knew that wasn’t her name and asked her what her given name was. She said “Sayitia” but quickly went into an explanation that excused anyone from using her name because it was hard to pronounce. I wrote her name down and said it back to her 3-4 times till I got it right. When I call my daughter now I ask “How’s Sayitia”? She thinks it’s a bit silly but I just determined that if her parents gave her that name, she ought to be able to hear it once in a while. Selfishly in this instance, it’s about my own learning as much as anything but hopefully, it will remind me to do better particularly with more challenging names. 

Finally, the last source is a bit of research I came across a few years back and have incorporated it into a few keynotes. Alan Levine first made me aware of this study

The study essentially tracks the lives of 1st graders to becoming adults. They all are from the same school and had 3 different 1st-grade teachers. The students who had the greatest success as adults were from one particular teacher. Among many things, one very specific difference was noted: Of the students from the 2 classes with lesser success, less than 50% remembered their teachers’ names. 105% of those in Miss A’s class, the teacher who had more success, remembered her name. The reason it was more than 100% was that students who weren’t even in her class thought she was their teacher. 

Eliminating the words rigor and busy from our educational vernacular are perhaps my most proud contributions to education. I want to add “I’m bad at names” to that list as well. I have some work to do on this I hope you’ll join me.