From the get-go, one of the most challenging things about befriending internationals is often learning their names. East Asian names seem particularly difficult for Westerners. It happened to us again today—a Chinese guy showed up at our new fellowship and sat behind us, looking timid but open. We found out it was his first Sunday at the church. My husband chatted him up and asked him his name and then tried multiple times (somewhat unsuccessfully) to pronounce it correctly. I heard the guest's name about 5 times, and within 10 minutes I had already forgotten it. But I need to work harder at remembering names, even Chinese names!
Not long ago I read a short piece by Mary Mohler on hospitality and she spoke of remembering people's names as a simple but important element of hospitality. I had never thought of it that way. She says,
"Can you associate with the common problem of being introduced to someone and immediately forgetting that person's name? Many people do not listen well when meeting someone new....and then feel reluctant to admit that [they] were not paying attention. The wrong assumption is commonly made that those who remember people's names are just 'great with names,' as if they have a genetic marker for that. The truth is that those who are adept at remembering names invest time and effort in learning them. Consider it an act of encouragement and yes, an expression of hospitality to call someone by name. Do you know anyone who is not pleased to be called by her name?"
"Consider it an expression of hospitality to call someone by name. — M. Mohler
Mohler suggested intentionally learning someone's name by listening carefully, saying the name to yourself or picturing the name, and taking notes that will jog your memory (if you are trying to remember several names). YouTube has lots of additional ideas for how to remember people's names. However, learning an international person's name can be especially difficult...although you may find that it gets a little easier as you meet more and more people of the same culture, because some names you will hear again.
This is my favourite tool for learning a person's name: as long as the situation is appropriate, I ask for his or her phone number and in the process, get him or her to spell the name out. Sometimes I do this at the end of a conversation in which I have already forgotten the person's name. A simple, "Can you help me spell your name?" (and then letting that person type the name into your phone) can help overcome the awkwardness of already having forgotten the name, and give you a chance to learn the person's name before the next time you meet.
Try asking people of other cultures the meaning of their names.
Another name-related tip that I learned from Jodie, who shared with us about hospitality to Muslims, is to ask people of other cultures the meaning of their names. In many cultures the meaning of someone's name is significant. When you hear the name, it means nothing to you, but if you spoke the person's native language, it probably would. Lately I asked a few Muslims the meaning of their names, and this both provided a bit more connection with them and also served as an additional data point to associate with their foreign-sounding names. Knowing a person's name meaning can also provide an interesting conversation starter or a reminder of how to pray for your international friend. The two names I learned recently had something to do with "peace" and "star"—meanings that I can easily associate with a prayer I have for those people.
Mohler tells a story of how someone told her once that her simple act of remembering his name had brightened his mood and encouraged him in the midst of a gloomy time in his studies. Knowing that motivated her to keep learning names. You will also find, as you work at remembering stranger's names, people will feel God's love through this little act of love on your part. Something as simple (or not-so-simple) as learning an international acquaintance's name can build a foundation for a meaningful relationship, and express God's heart of hospitality.