I first became enthused about remembering people’s names when I read an article in the Reader’s Digest - an entire book on memorization had been condensed into a mere three pages.
The article claimed you could recall people’s names by associating the uniqueness of their faces with some related object. Perhaps, I thought, this would help me keep track of who my customers were. But when I looked for the complete book at the library what did I discover? The last borrower had forgotten to bring it back.
Fortunately this is a subject on which there are plenty of books, so I borrowed something else.
I discovered that this association method is a common memory trick, but I also discovered that it’s very difficult to make conversation with a complete stranger while simultaneously focusing on their facial features.
Suppose you meet a Mrs Burton. You may note that her furrowed brow resembles her namesake Richard in his latter days. Your brain cells may connect this to craggy Welsh mountains or coalminers’ safety helmets or How Green Was My Valley.
But while you’re doing all this mental leaping and bounding, Mrs Burton may be wondering whether you’re an unenthusiastic conversationalist, or merely someone who’s on too much medication.
And six weeks later she’ll be startled to be addressed as Mrs Green, or even Mrs Taylor.
Then there’s Mr Brown, a man who hasn’t a single outstanding feature about him. Peering at his face is like looking for an oasis in the Sahara. The likelihood is that in future meetings you’ll call him Mr Bland.
Anyone who’s had to attend any sort of gathering will have noted how hosts insist on introducing you to people in an offhand way, tossing in a word or two about them, and then dragging you off to meet someone else. Or they throw a roomful of faces at you and say, “Let me tell you all these peoples’ names.” And, encouragingly, they add, “Of course you’ll forget them anyway.”
Worse, even in Anglican circles, where tradition ought to reign, people no longer introduce others by both Christian and surnames. It becomes a major undertaking to hang hooks on a succession of Georges, Bills, Bobs and Brians, let alone Claires, Susans, Gillians and Joans.
Having practiced hard at home, I know that the memory system works - and my brain knows it too. But given the opportunity to multi-task, my brain prefers to sulk.
Perhaps I’ll have to adopt the irritating approach someone recently used at church, on me. During our conversation, while I struggled to scan his face for spots or scars, cleft chins or twitches, this new acquaintance hammered my name onto the end of every sentence.
I have no idea who he was. But at least I remember who I am.
This piece was originally intended for the column in the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga.