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How Can You Get Better at Remembering Names?

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“Most people are bad at remembering names,” says Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Being “good” at remembering names is a matter of consciously investing a little time and attention. “The short answer is that [being bad at remembering names] is more an excuse,” says Richard Jackson Harris, professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. “But [remembering names] tends to be a difficult thing to do.”

In both social and professional settings, this type of simple name-dropping carries weight. “People feel appreciated when you call them by name,” Harris says. “It shows, ‘Oh, so and so has taken a little interest in me.’” In the workplace, this is especially valuable. “A new employee who learns everyone’s name quickly impresses people and can show he or she wants to be a good employee.”

How can you become better at committing a name-face association to memory? Here are some basic but effective tips and tricks to the art.

Pay attention.

First off, paying attention right when you are introduced to someone is key. What often happens, whether at a party or elsewhere, is that people are not fully focused on the introduction and easily miss the name, Harris says. “The main reason [we don’t remember names] is we don’t invest enough in encoding the name when we first hear it,” Foer says. “We are thinking about something clever to say back, so we never encode it properly.” Be attentive to link the name with the face right from the beginning.

Identify something different.

Find a defining characteristic to associate with someone’s name and face. Perhaps the person is tall or has red hair. Anything that sets someone a bit apart from others and is connected to your memory of that person helps with recall, Harris says.

Create a visual.

Foer says one of the most effective memorization tools is to create a visual image. His example: If you meet a “Bill” who has a large nose, you could create a mental snapshot of his nose as a duck’s bill. “That technique forces you to spend a little bit of time investing mental energy into making that association,” he says. “Investing energy is what makes information memorable.”

Repeat the name.

One of the oldest tricks, Foer says, is to use the person’s name in conversation right after an introduction. “If you don’t repeat something you’re not likely to hold onto it forever,” he says.

Take time to study.

It does take time to memorize names and faces, Harris says. At the start of every semester, Harris sits down between classes with a roster of his students and methodically goes through the names until he feels like they are comfortably committed to memory. He recommends new employees on the job take the same approach.

Don’t be afraid to ask.

Perhaps you didn’t catch someone’s name because it was loud when you were introduced or the person has an unusual name. People often shy away from asking for someone to repeat a name or help with pronunciation. “I’ve found most people would rather have you ask them to help you pronounce their name correctly or to repeat it than just not say it at all,” Harris says. Even a memory champion like Foer admits to forgetting things from time to time. 

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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