What’s in a Name? The Importance of Being Known

handshake-2056023_640Last Monday, I accompanied my son Alex on a visit to Lubbock Christian University. Alex is a junior and LCU is one of the colleges he is considering attending after graduation. Periodically, the school will host what’s known as “Chap Day,” a structured introduction to the university’s programs, facilities, and faculty for high school juniors and seniors. “Chap,” by the way, is short for chaparral (a roadrunner) which is the school’s mascot.

Arriving on campus, I could tell Alex was a little anxious. He’s an introvert by nature and doesn’t feel all that comfortable around strangers or in new, unfamiliar environments. His shoulders were tense and he spoke in a low tone, almost a whisper. He trailed behind me as we left the car and headed toward the designated check-in location.

We rounded a corner and headed toward a table situated outside the Welcome Center. Several college students were on-hand to greet visitors and usher them to the correct place. As we approached the table, I heard someone call out “Hey, Alex!” I looked up to see a member of our church’s college class. He works with the high school kids as well, and knew us.

I shot a glance over at Alex and noticed a complete change in his appearance. His shoulders had relaxed. His head was up and his eyes sparkled. A smile spread across his face, and he now walked ahead of me – moving forward to shake hands. In a split second, Alex’s entire demeanor had changed. He had been recognized. He had been called by name.

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus of the brain. It is commonly referred to as the “love hormone” because it’s a key player in the formation of close relationships. Production ramps up when we interact with lovers, our children, and pets. As we learn to trust and appreciate others, oxytocin kicks in to help us form friendships and alliances.

Research has also shown that oxytocin plays a role in our primal “fight or flight” response. When entering a safe environment (or one in which our brain believes it is safe) oxytocin production increases. This relaxes our muscles and increases our confidence. We can trust those around us and let down our guard. But in an unfamiliar situation (one which our brain does not recognize as safe), oxytocin production drops. Our eyes and ears strain to detect danger. Our muscles tense in anticipation of defending ourselves.

In 2006, Dennis Carmody and Michael Lewis published a study in which they revealed that simply hearing your own name increases the production of oxytocin. By studying the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of volunteers, they were able to determine that very specific parts of the brain respond to the sound of one’s own name. These parts of the brain are associated with identity and aren’t activated by hearing someone else’s name. Even under sedation, people will respond to the sound of their name.

Last week, I wrote about the power of words and how our brains process the words we hear. The left side of the brain interprets the meaning, or the definition, of words. The right side processes the feelings associated with those same words. When we hear our name, that third part of the brain reserved for identity is activated as well. When Alex heard his name being called, his brain instantly worked through a sophisticated process of analysis:

Left brain:           “That’s my name. Someone is addressing me.”

Right brain:        “That’s my name. Someone is glad to see me.”

Identity center: “That’s my name. Someone knows me.”

Is it any wonder that experts in sales, customer service, and leadership often mention the use of someone’s name as an important aspect of success? In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie put it this way: “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

When someone hears their name, there is an immediate, physical response. Calling someone by name communicates that you are someone to be trusted, someone to be confided in, and someone to be listened to. When you use someone’s name, you are calling up their very identity – their sense of self – and saying “I know you.” We can’t help but respond. When we are called by name, when we are known, it taps into our primal need for belonging.

Of course, you already know this, don’t you? I don’t have to sell you on the importance of using people’s names. If you’re like me, the big issue is actually remembering their name in the first place. You can’t use it if you can’t remember it. Fortunately, Mr. Carnegie also gave us a system for remembering names:

  1. Impression. The initial step is to focus on the name when you first hear it. You have to concentrate. You have to listen. Make sure you hear the name correctly, even if it means asking your customer to repeat it. Also make note of any distinguishing facial characteristics. The idea is to connect the name with the face and imprint this identity on your brain.
  2. Repetition. Step two is to immediately repeat the name. Just like memorizing a phone number, the more you repeat it, the more you’ll create a memory. Start by saying it back to the customer. Instead of “It’s nice to meet you,” say “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Voland.” Find opportunities to use the name once or twice during the ensuing interaction as well. Don’t overdo it, but remember that each time you repeat the name you are improving your own recall while simultaneously creating good feelings in your customer’s mind.
  3. Association. Finally, paint a mental picture of the person doing something that will help you remember their name in the future. This mental picture should involve motion and be something memorable. If you want to remember Ms. Baker, you could envision her falling face first into a cake she just baked, for example. The stronger this mental picture is, the more likely you are to recall it (and the associated name) the next time your customer walks in.

As Chap Day progressed, Alex ran into other people who knew him and called him by name –students and professors. Later that night, he voiced his desire to attend LCU. When I asked why, he talked about the academic programs, the social clubs, and the proximity to home. Then he added. “Plus, I know a lot of people there.”

And they know you too, son. They know you too.


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