How to be memorable in social settings

My father was not one for weekend parties and social gatherings. He was much happier at home, cutting weeds on the hillside or ensconced in his favorite reading chair with a good book.

Unfortunately for Dad, my mother was the opposite of him. She loved a good party. Whenever invited to a neighborhood get together or weekend BBQ, Mom always prodded my father into attending.

“I am not someone who likes cocktail parties or large dinner parties, but I have to attend them often. I much prefer very small dinners with close friends.” -Tom Ford

One of our neighbors was a neurosurgeon. He and his wife lived in a huge, impressive, colonial-style home with a long, winding driveway. They threw lavish parties, often outside on their sprawling front lawn.

Occasionally, I would tag along to the parties with my parents. Partly in the hope of meeting girls my age, and partly to watch the spectacle of nicely dressed adults getting plastered. It never ceased to amaze me the things inebriated adults would confide in me.

“As a child, I always enjoyed – my parents used to have these little cocktail parties – and I always loved trying to get the adults to tell me things they weren’t supposed to say. And in many ways, that’s what my job is today; it’s getting people to tell me things that they probably are otherwise not supposed to say.” -Andrew Ross Sorkin

Politicians and diapers

My father was an administrative law judge, bibliophile, historian, and teetotaler. Standing six feet and a solid 220 lbs, he possessed a self-assured, commanding presence. Yet, he was reserved, preferring to observe more than engage.

It was fun watching my father at big parties. While some folks worked the room and struck up conversations, Dad preferred to stroll the periphery, having quiet conversations here and there.

Parties at the neurosurgeon’s house invariably got louder. Once guests moved inside, conversations sometimes turned to politics. There were always a few opinionated folks who talked the loudest, challenging others and spoiling for a good debate.

Photos by John P. Weiss.

Once, during a heated conversation, a man turned towards my father and said, “Judge, we haven’t heard from you yet. What’s your opinion on this?”

I don’t remember the political issue, but I do remember my father’s unorthodox response. Instead of taking a position, he said something like, “Good people on both sides of this debate ought to sideline their partisan dogma and study the history behind it. The complexity of the past doesn’t allow for one-sided conclusions.”

From there, Dad led the group on a brief history lesson of the issue, and summed things up with a humorous quote from Mark Twain:

“Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” 

The crowd laughed heartily, and even the most opinionated in the group was disarmed by Dad’s impartial response and memorable quote. I sensed that few would remember the opinionated voices at the party, but many would remember the articulate judge and his funny Mark Twain quote.

Elegance is not about being noticed

We all want to make a good impression on others. For some, it’s also important to make the right connections. To do this, there are things we can do to be memorable. The key is to be memorable in a positive way, not a negative way.

“Elegance is not about being noticed, it’s about being remembered.” -Giorgio Armani

For example, you could dress like a complete clown and get a lot of attention at a party. Or you could become raving drunk, and make an utter fool of yourself. Both are memorable, but not in a good way.

What follows are five tips to make yourself more memorable (in a positive way) in social settings. The list is far from exhaustive but will give you a good start.

1. Uncommon answers

Parties and social gatherings often involve superficial chit chat. People meet or are introduced to one another, and the conversation begins with predictable questions and comments. Things like, “So, where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living?”

The answers to these conversation openers are typically unremarkable. One might respond with, “Me? Oh, I’m from Los Gatos, California,” or “I’m a soldier.” Such responses may be honest and true, but unremarkable.

Imagine, however, if you responded to such questions with more uncommon answers. For example, consider the following example between a woman named Jill and a man named Mark.

“So, Mark, where are you from?” asked Jill.

“I’m from a northern California town named after the screams of mountain lions prowling in the night. Early settlers used to call it ‘La Rinconada de Los Gatos (Cat’s Corner)’ but today it’s known as Los Gatos,” Mark replied.

Jill smiled and said, “That’s interesting. May I ask what you do for a living?”

“Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase ‘We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.’ Some say the phrase is from George Orwell. Others attribute it to the film critic and essayist Richard Grenier. Anyway, I’m one of those rough men. I’m an Army ranger.”

Think about more uncommon, interesting ways you can describe where you’re from and what you do for a living. Doing so will make you memorable, and open the door to more interesting and enjoyable conversations.

2. Dress for success

Looks and appearance aren’t everything, but people do make judgments about you based on how you are dressed. You don’t need expensive clothes and fancy brands to dress elegantly.

“Fashion is a tool…to compete in life outside the home. People like you better, without knowing why, because people always react well to a person they like the looks of.” -Mary Quant

My father told me to err on the side of dressing well versus dressing casually. I noticed that people react to me differently when I attend parties in a sports coat and crisp button-down shirt versus a polo shirt and jeans.

Elegantly dressed people stand out and tend to be more memorable than casually dressed folks. Of course, there are exceptions. You probably wouldn’t wear an evening gown to a pool party. The point here is that part of being memorable is dressing well and looking your best.

3. Music to their ears

No question smiling and making eye contact with others is a good way to connect and make a positive impression. However, if you want to be memorable, focus on remembering people’s names. After all, it’s the centerpiece of their identity.

The reason names are hard to remember is because they’re arbitrary, just like telephone numbers and addresses. There’s often not a lot of associations in your brain for random names. Even if you know someone else with the same name, you still tend to forget the new person’s name.

If you meet someone new and they tell you their name, don’t respond with, “Nice to meet you.” Instead, add their name at the end: “Nice to meet you, Sarah.” Make an effort to work the person’s name into your conversation. Don’t overdo it, but try to use their name periodically while talking.

Mnemonics can help, too, such as rhymes or word associations. For example, if I met a guy with squinty eyes named “Clint,” I might associate his name with the actor Clint Eastwood, who is famous for his menacing squint.

Remembering and using people’s names is music to their ears. With a little effort, you can get better at remembering names, which helps you become more memorable. After all, a lot of people are bad at remembering names. Do the opposite, and you’ll stand out in a good way.

4. Undivided attention

Remember when you were a kid craving the attention of your mother or father? You’ll see kids in a playground yelling, “Mommy, look at me,” or “Daddy, watch!” Kids want the undivided attention of their parents. When Mom or Dad is watching, kids feel important, loved, and valued.

The same is true when we grow up, except that we no longer wave our hands and say, “Look at me.” Rather, we simply take note of who is paying attention to us and who isn’t.

Ever been in a conversation with someone who keeps checking their phone or watch? Or maybe they’re scanning the room behind you while you’re talking. When people do this to us, we feel slighted. Or maybe we feel insecure and assume we’re not interesting.

“Everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention; a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life thant to be attentive to such needs.” -Jonathan Safran Foer

The reality is that we live in an attention economy, where our phones, tablets, and laptops all vie for our attention. Pop-ups and social media are designed to distract us down rabbit holes and sales funnels. We have grown accustomed to distraction, and crave instant gratification. As a result, our social skills suffer, along with our attention.

If you want to be memorable, get good at giving people your undivided attention. Keep your phone in your pocket. Listen closely to what others are saying. Repeat back parts of what they say, and ask lots of questions.

People love to talk about themselves, and having someone listen to them provides validation and appreciation.

5. To fill up and live

One of my Dad’s secret weapons was his love of books and reading. He had a large library, containing everything from the Harvard classics to history books, non-fiction works, and novels. Most evenings, while my mother, sister, and I were watching television, Dad was in his leather chair reading.

Books expose us to other worlds, people, perspectives, and experiences. Unlike many blog posts and social media feeds, traditionally published books are better edited and more professionally written. The reality is that taking a new book to market is expensive, and publishers look for the best work to invest their time and money in.

I used to be a news junkie, often watching cable news shows and parroting their talking points. I enjoyed diving into political debates with others. Over time, however, I began to see how pointless much of this was. I started to turn to books, to acquire deeper knowledge and understanding.

“She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” -Annie Dillard

People have their political views and biases, and they’re hard to change. Nothing is more boring than listening to two blowhards argue the same political dogma and jargon heard on the cable news shows. This is why my father stood out at that party mentioned above. Because he didn’t get in the gutter with partisan politics. He rose above it by sharing a historical perspective, followed by the wisdom of Mark Twain.

Being well-read arms you with unexpected bits of wisdom and knowledge, making you memorable and interesting in social settings.

For example, I was at a gathering once where a woman reflected on the difficulties of aging. I responded with a quote from Shakespeare’s sonnet 19: “Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws.” Then I followed up with a quote from the choreographer Twyla Tharp: “Age is not the enemy. Stagnation is the enemy. Complacency is the enemy. Stasis is the enemy.”

Sharing wisdom and knowledge from good books elevates the conversation, prods people to think deeper, and makes you more memorable in social settings. Just be judicious in how much you share, so that you don’t come off as some kind of intellectual show off or an annoying pedant.

A good first impression

According to Will Rogers, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. To that end, take advantage of the above five tips. Come up with some uncommon answers about yourself, that will surprise and delight people. Dress elegantly, and focus on remembering people’s names. Give them your undivided attention, and keep company with good books.

Do these things, and people will remember you. They’ll tell others about how interesting you are. You’ll make helpful connections, potentially expand your circle of friends, and become more memorable. All of which can enrich your life, and put you in a better position to enrich the lives of others.

This article first appeared on John P.