Remembering Names and Pattern Recognition

I spent the first half of this week attending a Pan-Asia training program in Hong Kong. Most of the people attending this program were from the Tokyo and Hong Kong offices of our firm, and most of them happened to be natives of China, Japan and Korea. It was a wonderful training program and gave much scope for networking. The biggest surprise to me, however, was about how bad I was during the two days at remembering names – something I consider myself good at.

We Indians constantly crib that westerners are usually bad at catching our names while on the other hand that we don’t have much trouble remembering their names. Thinking about it, I think name recognition is basically an exercise in pattern recognition and the ease of rememberance of a certain class of names depends on how easily we can recognize those patterns.

If you are familiar with the broad class of names of a particular ethnicity (let’s say Indian Hindu for example), you don’t really need to remember the name as a collection of syllables. You only need to know say the first letter, or an abstract concept which is what the name means, or a combination of this and it is likely that you can remember the full name.

The thing wiht western names, however, is that due to Hollywood, or sport, or colonial rule, or the fact that Indian Christians have names similar to mostly christian Westerners, most Western names are familiar to us. And because of this familiarity, it is not hard at all for us to remember the name of the average Westerner. On the contrary, due to lack of exposure, Westerners can’t recognize patterns in Indian names because of which it is hard for them to remember our names.

It is due to lack of general familiarty with Chinese and Japanese names that I found it so hard to remember names during the recent trip. There was no way I could break down names into easy combination of syllables (yeah for example Hi-ro-hi-to consists of all easy syllables, but how many people called hirohito would you know for you to remember the whole name by just remembering part of the name) and so I had the additional responsibility of remembering all the syllables in the names and the combination in which they occurred.

On a related note, a disproportionate proportion of people of Chinese origin at the training had a christian (western) first name and a chinese last name (eg. Michael Chang). But then I suppose this is because a lot of Chinese people adopt a “Western name” to make matters simple when they migrate or something (so for example, someone called Chang Sun-Wang will convert his name to Stephen Chang).

3 thoughts on “Remembering Names and Pattern Recognition”

  1. Plus most names are common ones like john, adam, paul, george, eric, ben … thats true even with female name jess, maria, britney etc we know celebrities with these names. there are fewer names … every class with have one person for at least 15 of top 25 common names …thats not true in india … apart from names like Karthik (asp in south india), how many names can you say for sure will exist in a class room? … but think about remembering their last names … we have as much difficulty remembering their last names as they have remembering our first and last names … so yeah .. it is mostly patter recognition.

  2. Agree with you on the last para, have come across quite a few anglicized names on official mails. But, on conf. calls, i realize that they are Chinese!

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