You may recall that nearly every Sherlock Holmes story would feature a little vignette where Holmes would make some dazzling display of what author Conan Doyle called “the science of deduction”.  You remember the routine; some character would come across Holmes’s path, and Holmes would then proceed to make a series of razor-sharp, breezy deductions about the person’s life from something as simple as a smudge of mud on his shoe, or a blemish on his hand.  Everyone would gasp in astonishment, and Holmes would establish his dominance.  Are such a feats of observation possible in real life?  Can one train one’s observation skills to such a high level?   Well, probably not.  But you can still improve your observation skills with hard work.  I have seen extremely shrewd merchants in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili market identify a wealth of information about foreigners in under a minute, just from observing them.  And the overall effect was amazing.

While Conan Doyle was exaggerating “deduction” for literary effect, the fact remains that sharp powers of observation can pay huge dividends in social interactions.  Whether your goal is to improve your gaming skills, negotiation skills at work, or social abilities in general, training yourself to become an observer of people is a critical talent.  We can sharpen our powers of observation to a high degree by systematically focusing on a few areas.  For example, facial construction and clothing are two areas that can be studied in detail with great profit.  I enjoy names.  Let’s call it the Name Game.

Remember the Grimm’s fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin”?  What enabled the maiden to triumph over the evil imp was her discovery of his name.  Like many fairy tales, it can be interpreted allegorically as representing a subconscious psychological truth.  The imp knew the maiden had gained power over him by unmasking his name and, by extension, his identity.  The idea that names represent our inner selves is a very ancient one, probably going back to prehistoric days when totems and taboos surrounded place-names and certain objects.  When someone can hone in on our name, and learn something about us—however insignificant—that person can be seen to have gained a subtle psychological advantage over us.  I know from experience that, in the right circumstances, revealing some detail about a person’s name and place of origin can often give you an edge in a social interplay.  Even if you are totally wrong in your guess, the attempt alone demonstrates awareness of cultures and nations.  And that is what really matters.

The first and easiest step is to train yourself to recognize the ethnic origin of any name at a glance.  For example, Russian names often end in –ov or –in; Armenian names in –ian, Greek names in –os, -is, or –on; Latvian names in –ius.  These suffixes are often vestiges of inflectional endings in these respective languages.  Finnish, Danish, Norweigan, Polish, and Swedish are easily distinguishable with a little practice;  Arabic, Turkish, and Iranian names are also easily recognizable with some eye for detail.  Nigerian, Ethiopic, and Kenyan names all have specific flavors and forms, and these are often closely bound up with tribal affiliations in these countries.  Bosnian names have a South Slav “feel” but with Turkish overtones.  I could continue, but you get the idea.

Every country and ethnic group in the world has a specific “flavor” of surname.  Your job is to learn the flavor and be able to spot it instantly.  People with language talent do well at the Name Game.  You would be surprised how many people never bother to learn the basics of names.  But if you want to be mingle with international women, you need to develop this skill.

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The next step, which is more difficult, is to be able to probe more deeply into the surname.  Can you associate a surname with a specific region in a country?  Does it bear a tribal or ethnic affiliation?  Does it have a specific meaning?   This is hardly an exact science, and the rules will vary from country to country.  But a bit of research and practice get you off to a running start.  If you know you are visiting a specific country in advance, it would be worth it to put in some effort to ethnographic geography.  For example, the Celtic nations (Ireland, Scotland, Wales) all have strong county and surname correlations:  specific surnames can be traced to specific counties.  The same holds true for the Scandinavian, Iberian (Spain and Portugal) and Mediterranean nations.  For countries in the New World, the name game work as well, since almost everyone is an immigrant, but at least you can display some ethnographic knowledge of the Old Country.  Take a look at the surname distribution in Spain by region:

spanishsurnames2

Despite all the travel and intermixing in the modern world, tribalism still has very strong roots and remains a fact of anthropology.  A great many family names in any given country can be traced to specific regions in that country.  There are country-specific lexicons and resource books available that give the geographic origin of family names for many nations.  I have one for a country in the eastern Mediterranean, and it has detailed history of each family’s origin, religion, and various branches.

To demonstrate how this operates in practice, let us consider Italy and France as random examples.  Let’s look at France first.  In France, names that end in –ac are often from the southwest region (and some are from Brittany).  The German-sounding names are often from the Alsace region.  Typical Norman names (from Normandy) are Langlois and Duval, but most are similar to those of French-speaking parts of Belgium, Picardie, and Nord-pas-de-Calais.  Spanish sounding French names, of course, would originate in the Pyrenees region (bordering Spain).  With Italy, and the perhaps stronger connection between family and region, the rules are easier to lay out.  Shown below are various regions in Italy, and the types of surname suffixes that hail from that region.  In parentheses, some example names are provided for illustration:

Piemonte:    -ero/-ario (Barbero, Sobrario),  -esio (Gorresio),  -audi/aldi (Rambaudi)

Liguria:      -asco (Cevasco)

Lombardia:      -ago/-aghi/-ati  (Arconati), -atti/-etti (Orsatti),  -di/-oldi  (Soldi, Giraboldi),  -ingo/-engo (Martinengo)

Toscana:     -otti/-utti/-ut/-ot  (Bertolotti, Biasutti, Franzot)

Sardegna:    -au (Biddau, Madau),  -as (Cannas, Piras),  -u (Caffedu)

Sicilia:     -isi (Puglisi),  -aloro (Favaloro, Orghialoro)

Finally, some caveats are in order here.  I am not saying that the Name Game is going to be a deciding factor in any social interaction.  Alone, it is only of academic use.  It is not a magic wand that will enable you to compensate for weak social skills in other areas.  In fact, it is a very minor arrow in your social quiver.  Furthermore, the average person won’t be able to deploy the Name Game without some solid background work.  If you haven’t done the work, you’re better off keeping your mouth shut and practicing your “nodding game”.  But you never know when some piece of information can ride to your rescue.

When it comes to game, everything is part of everything else.  And everything matters.  Game is all about situational awareness, that intangible “feel” for the situation and the target.  So, don’t look for cure-alls, and don’t expect magic bullets.  I’m only offering a small bit of advice on a small part of the overall equation.  The right Name Game observation dropped at the right time can work wonders.

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If the rest of your social skills are tight, playing the Name Game successfully can have a big impact on the interaction.  I remember one time I was talking to this beautiful Kenyan girl who was being very polite but noticeably cool to my approach.  After hearing her name, I was able to tell her what tribe she belonged to (Kikuyu) and what specific part of Kenya her family hailed from.  I could see her defenses melt in an instant, and from that point on I could do no wrong.

As chance would have it, I had recently finished a basic book on East African history and geography and had some of this information at my fingertips.  Africa is a great continent to play the Name Game, since tribal affiliation and regionalism there are still relatively strong.  Take note.  Nigeria, for example, is composed of very specific tribal and sectarian groupings, each with names that are easily identified.

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Work towards being as well-read as you can be in geography, history, anthropology, and languages.  These areas all help.  Mastering the etymology of names for the country of your choice can be an interesting diversion that may help you where you least expect it.  And in a larger sense, if you train yourself to become an astute observer of human behavior in all its various habitats and manifestations, your effort will be rewarded.

Read More: Two Ways To Pursue Happiness