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What was your name again? Using Behavioral Intelligence to Explain Why We Forget Names

I will never forget an interaction that I had long ago where a good friend of mine invited me to join him at a local event where he would introduce me to some powerhouse prospects. It was a scorching hot day in July and the event was an outdoor charity festival. Of course, I was suited up and thought I was going to melt. I was slightly self-conscious to the heat factor, which was only compounded by my nerves in walking into this exceptional opportunity. I spotted my friend sitting with someone under one of the food tents and began to walk that way. As I approached, my friend popped up with some excitement to greet me, “Let me introduce you to my colleague, he is the CEO at Company X.”. As his colleague raised from his seat and extended his hand, the rush of excitement and anxiety poured in. I couldn’t help but notice his high-end watch, exceptional suit, and shoes that were polished within an inch of their life. While his facial expression was inviting, his eyes were narrow with focus as he was closely examining me, which only gave even more concern. I thought to myself, I wonder just how sweaty my hands are…Oh well, here goes. As his hand connected with mine, relief came upon me, mine were no worse than his. He smiled and said, “<name>, with Company X.” As quick as he said it, it was gone. There it was, there it went. I had already forgotten it because I was so focused on everything other than what he was saying. All I could think was, “well shit.”

If you are like most people, myself included, you may have found yourself in a similar situation where you were introduced to a new person and immediately forgot or completely missed their name. The worst part is, we usually miss the next 5 things the person has to say because we are racking our own brain trying to recall this essential piece of information.

We then start to think of ways to obtain the information. Do we grab someone close by that we know and facilitate a fake introduction?

“Oh, have you met my friend Joe? Joe, this is ….uhh…uhh…”
“Karen.”
“That’s right, Karen. I knew that, Karen.”

Do you just suck it up and ask again?

“Um, could you remind me of your name one more time.”

Do you take a swing at what you think it is and hope to a higher power that you are correct?

“So, Susan(?), I would love to connect with you about that project…”

Or, do you just use alternative language to hide the fact that you forgot?

“Great to meet you ______! (Fill in an awkward buddy, friend, pal, dear, ma’am, etc.)”

As a communication scholar, and someone who had awkwardly suffered through this on more than one occasion, I was curious how and why this occurs. Can Behavioral Intelligence help explain why so many of us experience this scenario? Of course. But first, let’s explore prevailing wisdom on the subject.

According to Psychology Today, there are 4 reasons names are not remembered:

  1. Names are arbitrary
  2. Names don’t have synonyms
  3. Names contain multiple words
  4. Names are low-frequency words

Other research suggests we forget because names are non-descriptive. This feeds into the arbitrary argument in that names are merely an applied label for individual persons; given that names, such as John nor Jane, give no insight into a person’s looks, personality, or presence, there is nothing to link the name to the person.

Despite this, we may sometimes feel like someone just “looks like an Erin.” We may also have an aversion to other people with a certain name, simply because we had a bad experience with a different person who shares the same name. We may even feel like “it’s something in the name,” but this begs the question of whether we create a self-fulfilling prophecy by applying previously experienced behaviors to previously encountered names, subconsciously. There is also a prevailing thought that we are just not interested in the other person. Maybe, maybe not. When I was meeting with Mr. President, I can assure, my interest was there.

Any of these reasons seem logical and may even contribute, however, I have an alternative explanation. I have seen significant success coaching my clients to improve name recall once the “why” has been answered. Using behavioral intelligence as a lens, I hope the following explanation gives you a new perspective and provides a better chance to remember the next name that is thrown your way.

First, let’s take into consideration the different mental exercises and physical behaviors that are simultaneously occurring when we meet someone. As we approach for an introduction, we are already starting the process of analyzing our counterpart. Our brain lights up as we analyze the specifics of their physical presence including face, height, distance, size, and more.

At a subconscious level, we are assessing the persons value to our survival capacity, their threat potential, and a myriad of other elements through our limbic system. As we reach to shake hands, our brain is now calculating connecting with a moving target, requiring spatial and temporal coordination.

Consciously, we are also analyzing their existence, as well as our own and how those existences may interact. Will they like me? What a unique haircut. I wonder how my breath is? They have nice shoes.

Once your hand contacts the new person, now the activity is even more heightened. The amygdala, the fear and emotion regulation part of the brain, is making calculations regarding our own safety and contemplating a fight, flight, or faint response. Meanwhile, the neocortex and the rational thinking part of our brain, is trying to override the fear response and give attention to the circumstance. The problem is, this is all taking an exorbitant amount of attention and humans are terrible at multitasking our attention.

We take for granted how much mental energy and coordination it takes for a simple act of shaking someone’s hand and introducing ourselves. Remember that the above is happening in nanoseconds, some of it at a conscious level and some of it subconsciously. During all of this physiological and neurological activity, our counterpart delivers their name. A single word with no descriptive or functional meaning in a stream of language. With everything else going on, it is an easy component to get lost in the shuffle.

The stress, anxiety, excitement, fear, and exhilaration of a new interaction clouds our brain and reduces the likelihood of us remembering names. We have less problems remembering other elements of the conversation, but usually, these come after the initial shock of the introduction. If you were to analogize this scenario in another context, consider an amateur speaker giving a presentation. The first minute or so will be the toughest part because their brain is sorting through a cadre of emotional and physical stimuli. Once the ball gets rolling, and some of those anxieties begin to subside, they get into their groove and the presentation becomes much more fluid. Anxiety and fear produce cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. Meeting someone new can have the effect of injecting these survival chemicals into our brain system, effectively lowering cognition and memory.

Now that we have provided an explanation to problem, how can we use the behavioral intelligence framework to improve our skills as remembering someone’s name? Stay tuned for part 2 where we will explore strategies and tactics for remembering names during introductions.

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