My husband and I have been loyal to the same dry cleaner for nearly three decades. Run by a husband and wife, we’ve discussed local issues, cars, the weather and then some. The owner’s son and our son are the same age and went to school together. We refer to them as Mr. and Mrs. Sparkle because their business is called Sparkle Cleaners. Yet, recently it occurred to us, that after all these years, we don’t know their real names.
I find this a bit embarrassing. How can you interact with people for so long and not know their names? It would easier if we recently met and couldn’t remember their names. Or, if we saw them infrequently, perhaps we could just ask them. Since that’s not the case, asking would be very awkward not to mention insulting.
I recently read an article suggesting that forgetting someone’s name can send a signal that you aren’t interested enough to bother remembering them. A psychologist quoted in the article says it’s like telling someone they’re a zero.
Now I really feel bad.
So, I started to think about how this spills over into the work world. For example, my husband isn’t very good at remembering names even after he’s met people a few times. How does that make someone else feel? At work, could he be perceived as not interested or not paying attention?
Interestingly, he’s not alone and the experts agree it’s not his fault. Psychologists say name recall isn’t a strong suit for everyone. Because names are random and not always associated with something visual, some brains struggle to remember them. Mix that up with health issues, lack of sleep and whether or not you were fully attentive all play a part.
At work, people can be less forgiving than in social circles. Even though you felt like you were paying attention while someone was speaking, clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow says it’s likely you weren’t really listening to what was being said.
“You were looking at them, observing them, noticing them and your visual senses were overriding your auditory senses,” says Klapow. “You heard the name, but it didn’t commit to memory the way the person’s facial features did.”
Not to mention how busy our brains are. They get so full of information that we push the so called less important things aside.
What happens if you don’t work at freeing up space in that brain to remember names at work and get to know a little about your colleagues? For example, where did they grow up? Do they have kids? Hobbies? Where did they last work? What types of projects are they interested in?
This is far more than small talk. It signals that you are genuinely interested in team members, employees, customers and others you may interact with. There is a difference between asking prying questions and personal questions. Prying questions about intimacy, family problems or your financial picture can be too personal. Questions that help you learn about someone’s likes, dislikes and interests help you learn about people. Taking an interest in colleagues can help build trust, rapport and foster a sense of community at work.
That seems to be true at Sparkle Cleaners. I’ve noticed those who work there seem to care about me. If I have a tough stain, they want to know how it happened and then they go the extra mile to remove it. If a button is missing on an article of clothing, they sew it back on without charge. Even in the heat of summer working in unairconditioned shop, they never complain. Instead they enthusiastically ask about our family, activities and how we’re holding up in the heat.
They can certainly teach us a few things about communicating in the workplace.
A good attitude goes a long way. Being friendly, pleasant and helpful even on a tough day is a lot nicer than greeting people with a cranky scowl.
Tackling an extra task, staying late or taking time out of your jammed schedule to help someone else and not expecting anything in return shows that you care. It also tells colleagues and customers that they are a priority.
It’s easy to complain about circumstances or make excuses for why you can’t get something done. It’s more rewarding to accept responsibility and put the emphasis on your customers.
As a leader or owner, you’ll benefit from increased business and referrals. You’ll also reap a great deal of respect because you’ve respected others by prioritizing their satisfaction. That makes them feel valued.
As I was writing this article, I decided to take my own advice and make the Sparkles feel more valued too. So, I drove to the dry cleaner. They were surprised because I had just been there so there was nothing for me to pick up. That’s when I came clean. I told them after all these years, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know their real names.
They introduced themselves as Young and Sung Suh. As we started talking, I learned they named their business Sparkle because they want to make your clothes sparkle.
I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t asked and listened. When you communicate and take an interest in others, you also gain a better understanding of your customers and colleagues.
Young and Sung Suh do far more than make clothes sparkle. They make their customers sparkle as well.