Six Tips for Coping with the Fact that You’ve Forgotten Someone’s Name.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six tips for coping with the fact that you don’t remember a person’s name.

If you’re like me, you sometimes have trouble remembering people’s names, or even how you know them. A few years ago, while at a chaotic birthday party for a three-year-old, I was on the brink of going over to some little kid’s father to say, “I think we went to college together.” Turns out it was Dylan McDermott!

In ancient Rome, the job of the “nomenclator” was to whisper or announce the names of people as they approached a politician. My husband serves this function for me; he has an uncanny ability to recall names and faces — people he has met once, years ago, and also famous people. I’ll insist I’ve never met someone before, and he’ll say, “Wasn’t he in your class in college?” I have no idea how he does it, but I really suffer when I got to social events without him.

So I’ve developed some strategies for coping with the fact that I’m not able to pull up a person’s name right away. Of course, you can always just say politely, “I’m sorry, I don’t recall your name,” but if you’d rather try to disguise your forgetfulness a bit, give these a try:

1. The “I know your name, but I’m blocked” dodge:
“I keep wanting to call you “David,” but I know that’s not right.”

2. The “Of course I know you — in fact, I want all your information” dodge:
“Hey, I’d love to get your card.”

3. The “The tip of my tongue” dodge:
“I know I know your name, but I’m blanking right now.”

4. The “You’re brilliant!” dodge:
“Wow, you have a terrific memory. I can’t believe you remember my name from that meeting six months ago. I can’t remember the names of people I met yesterday! So of course I have to ask you your name.”

5. The “Sure, I remember you” dodge:
“Remind me – what’s your last name?” If you ask a person for his last name, he’s likely to repeat both names. “Doe, John Doe.”

6. The “One-sided introduction” dodge:
“Hey,” you say to the person whose name you can’t remember, “let me introduce you to Pat Smith.” You introduce the two and say the name of the person whose name you remember. Almost always, the nameless person will volunteer his or her name.

Also, remember that others might have trouble remembering your name. When you’re saying hello to someone, err on the side of re-introducing yourself. “Hi, John, it’s Gretchen Rubin.” Say your name slowly and clearly. And don’t get offended if someone doesn’t remember your name! And while you’re at it, remember to smile. It really does make a difference in how friendly you’re perceived to be.

* The brilliant Leo Babauta of Zen Habits fame has started a site, Mnmlist.com, about minimalism, “How less is the answer.” Lots of wonderful material there.

* As I posted the other day, I’m trying to figure out the level of interest for a book tour. If I did a book event in your town, and you’d come, it would be very helpful if you’d either post a comment below or drop me an email at grubin[at]gretchenrubin[dot com]. (Sorry about the weird format – trying to thwart spammers). Just write “tour” in the subject line, and be sure to include the name of your city! Thanks very much to all the people who already answered; the information is enormously helpful.

  • bodphila

    I used to be a politician and I have tried every trick, even back in the day when I was GREAT at remembering names and faces. I think I stopped exercising that muscle and it atrophied when I left office. Introducing yourself even if you think you know the person’s name is a great dodge too though perhaps not as successful as the one-sided intro dodge, especially if the person says, “yes, I know you.” That’s when the “you’re brilliant dodge would come in handy, though another approach is to smile and say, “just making sure. I hate it when I don’t remember people’s names.”

    A closely related tip is to say, “nice to see you,” instead of “nice to meet you.” I’ve avoided many an awkward moment with that one.

  • robbyslaughter

    Some more great tips:

    If you don’t know someone’s name, the second best thing you can use is an appropriate term of endearment. (“Hey man!” “Hi sweetie!”) This is even more effective if it references something unique about them (“Well if it isn’t the brightest shoe salesman in the midwest! How are ya?”) or how you know each other (“Well, if it is isn’t miss-I’m-eating-anchovies-just-because!”)

    Another great tip is to buy yourself some time. (“Hey! Before you open your mouth, I have GOT to get to bathroom.”) Take that five minutes to rack your brain, search your email on your iPhone, whatever you need!

    You can also ask people for innocent information, like an email address or phone number. When writing it down or typing it in to your phone, you nonchalantly ask for the correct spelling. This is easy to laugh off. (“Ha ha. It’s just B-O-B S-M-I-T-H.” “I figured, but you can never be too careful these days.”)

    Finally, you can establish a culture of pre-introduction. (“Hey, that woman over there is Gretchen Rubin. Have you two met?”) People love to be so important that someone is talking about them from across the room, and they love to be well-connected that they can identify others from afar. Repeat this pattern a few times and people will start to subconsciously do the same for you!

    Hope that helps. Great work as always!

    @robbyslaughter

  • ElizMcK

    I understand your predicament. My spouse is the same way with name. A friend of ours pointed out to me, many years ago, that I say a person’s name a lot when I’m speaking to him/her. I don’t do it consciously, but I think that may be the trick. I’ve heard or read that if you repeat a person’s name when you are first introduced, it helps it to stick in your long-term memory better.

    Good post! I think I’ve seen my spouse do all of these plus one: I intuitively know when a person’s name is missing from memory and I introduce myself. Yes, it is lacking in social grace, but it does the trick.

    If the person looks familiar, I’ll say “I’m [my name], I think we met a while ago, but I wasn’t sure you would remember me. That works too.

  • http://happinessinthisworld.com/ Alex @ Happiness in this World

    Here’s a suggestion for remembering names: when you first meet someone, translate their name into something visual (eg, Mike becomes a large microphone) and then in your mind pick their most salient physical characteristic (eg, big ears, curly hair) and do something outrageous with the visual picture of their name (eg, imagine their ears speaking into the microphone). Seems like a bit of work but if you have real trouble remembering names, it really works (at least, it does for me).

    http://www.happinessinthisworld.com/2009/06/07/how-to-remember-things/

  • http://scientificliving.net/ Scientific Living

    Hey, these are good tips. I have serious memory problems from Lyme, so this could really help me out. Haha, let me get your business card.

  • http://picsiechick.blogspot.com/ PicsieChick

    I am fabulously relieved that I am not alone in this challenge, even down to the spouse who seems to remember *everyone*. :-)

    Life is good! Thank you for another great post!

  • http://www.getinthehotspot.com/ Annabel, Get In The Hot Spot

    Great article – this must be a universal problem. Unfortunately I don’t have it and remember most people’s names:
    “Hi Jane!” I’ll sing out, sending Jane scurrying off in fright because she has no idea who I am. Tragic really.

    By the way, I’ve got to mention this. I love your site but Disqus is such a pain. Not sure what the point of it is but it’s creating a lot of problems for me when I comment here. If I could change one thing on your site it would be to eliminate Disqus. Just a thought:)

  • http://sharingblankets.com/ BostonGirl

    I often forget the names of people I meet too. One trick my boyfriend taught me was to mentally spell out the person’s name letter by letter right after the introduction. It might not help me remember if I saw the person a year later, but at least it would get me through the night without forgetting.

  • evarobertson

    I think I’d go for the “I”m sorry I’ve forgotten your name.” The others seem a bit dicey — I don’t want to ask someone’s last name if I don’t know their first, if only because it makes me feel disingenous and god forbid they shouldn’t offer their first name, and then start calling me by mine. The last tip I employ all the time, but I never get saved.

    The brilliant tip in this post is to give your OWN name first. This I never have the presence of mind to do, but it is very good, because it lets the person know you wouldn’t expect them to remember your name or mind if they did not, and you hope the forgiveness is mutual; the main thing is that you enjoy seeing and connecting with them again.

    Of course, this doesn’t take care of the problem of not remembering the name of a person whom you know has known your name from the get go, but this is the 20th time you’ve forgotten theirs. This happens to me increasingly, not because I’m special, but because my short term memory is just so APPALLING.

    I’d come to see you promote your book in Harrisonburg, Va and I’d invite as many friends/mothers as I could get out .

    PS — Interesting new format for your blog — a little less cozy, but very professional looking. Can you explain the “HELLO My Name Is” icon at the top? It doesn’t seem to do anything when clicked on.

    And I would love

  • thehealthylibrarian

    My personal preference is for someone to come straight out & say, “I know I know you–but I just can’t remember your name.” or

    “You look so familiar–tell me how we know each other.”

    100% better than avoiding the issue–or the person.

    We’ve all had these lapses–so better to be straight up.

    My personal pet peeve–is when someone just says, “Hi ‘ya” Then for sure they don’t remember you! And they’re not going to ask.

  • http://talesfromabarstool.wordpress.com/ Tales From a Bar Stool

    Excellent tips! I am terrible with names (unless he is gorgeous) and great with faces. If I’m with a friend I’ll try to send her signals to introduce herself so I can learn the other person’s name. Other than that, I’ll come clean and admit I don’t know. The most embarrassing is if you still can’t remember after asking them their name a couple times in the past. oops.

  • http://beatschindler.com/blog Beat Schindler

    How about everyone wearing a name tag, permanently? Come to think of it, it is why Facebook and Twitter are so much liked, the name is always there.

  • alexfayle

    I used to have a great memory for names – never once slipped up then when I started my business and began networking, the sheer numbers overwhelmed me. Now my favourite trick is the one-sided introduction…

  • http://twitter.com/holksch Carolyn Cordon

    I quite often call women darling, whether I actually know their name or not. It’s like men calling each other ‘mate’.

    I love the six tips here though, and it’ll be useful for all of the women I see who I don’t think are worthy of ‘darling’ from me.

  • Mjx

    Mostly, I’ve found this to be a problem only if I have to introduce someone whose name I’ve forgotten; after all, how often do you actually say someone’s name during a conversation with him or her?
    In those instances, though, I just tell the truth: ‘I’m sorry, I feel like a moron, but I’m not good at remembering names..?’

    Part of the reason names of the newly introduced fail to register with me is that I tend to be introduced to people when I’ve first joined a group, and am feeling nervous (and often, one is introduced to a bunch of people, one after the other); if I get chatting with some these people, I’ll mention this, and ask them to remind me of their names. This has never offended anyone yet, and the names actually do then stick.

  • Name

    WOW! I haven’t dropped in for a little while and you’ve done so much! The book – the toolbox…you are amazing! I don’t know where you get the energy…. but it’s appreciated by me and so many….

  • Nomi

    Good coping tips. For quite a lot of us, however, these kinds of ploys are an attempt to fish out information that will let us know if we even know the person. I’m talking about face-blindness, or prosopagnosia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopagnosia). I can’t even pick my own children out of a group of kids. In a business environment, it’s a nightmare. My sister was fired from her job in part because people thought she refused to speak to them. Actually she didn’t know she knew them. In my case, I’ve gone the other way. I smile and pretend to know complete strangers, just in case… because everyone is a complete stranger. Names, I remember. But I can’t tell if any of the names in my memory is you, and no matter how many times we have the conversation, it’s not going to help the next time.

  • fatma

    I like this tips. They are amazing. I am gonna to share them with my sister who always forgets names.
    By the way, I like the new look of your website. It is more calm and relaxing

  • Name

    What about a delivery person who says hi every time he comes in and knows your name because you sign for things, but he doesn’t wear a name tag and, even though he’s been delivering for a long time, he’s never told you his name? After a couple years, it seems like a little too long to say, “Hi, I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”

    I can’t believe this post came up just when I’ve actually been wondering about how to do this!
    Thanks for the great blog.

    • http://www.jonathanpatterson.com/ Jonathan Patterson

      Ask if he goes by a nickname.

  • http://janekennedysutton.blogspot.com/ Jane Kennedy Sutton

    It used to bother me forgetting names all the time, but now I just ask their name again and blame it on my age! However, I like, beatcoach’s idea of everyone wearing name tags permanently.

  • http://fupducktv.com/blog FupDuckTV

    Honesty is the best policy… “Hey, I’m horrible with names. Can you help me out?”

    The “dodges” are great ideas, but they can back fire too easily.

  • Dajolt

    I’m really teribble with names.

    Here’s what I do for yearly events like conventions. Take a lot of digital pictures at events and then, before visiting the next event, look and the images and try remembering the names (plus ask friends going to the same even who that was, if I can’t)

    Helps a lot.

  • http://www.anagentofchange.com/ Jill

    Gretchen,
    Thanks for these tips as I am a repeat offender when it comes to forgetting names. So embarrassing!
    I also have an arrangement with whichever freind I am with at the time. If they see me hesitate at all in introducing them to anyone, I ask they introduce themselves quickly, allowing me to hear the other person’s name.
    Thanks for your insights!

    Jill

  • Cara Thompson

    Come to Houston! I would be there and so would several members of my family and friends…

  • http://penvspaper.com Jeffrey Tang

    Hey Gretchen, just rediscovered your blog today via Twitter!

    This post made me laugh (in a good way). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tiptoe my way out of a forgotten-name jam. Tip #6 has got to be my personal favorite … I’ve used it more times than I care to admit.

    Speaking of which – this post reminded me of a scene from The Devil Wears Prada. And yes. I have seen that movie multiple times. And I’m a guy. Can I blame it on my girlfriend?

    Apologies for the rambling. But a nice, lighthearted post – thanks!

  • Tony

    All excellent tips. I organize and host a number of monthly dinner meetings
    at restaurants seating 10-12 at each table. There are a lot of regulars however often new people who I assign the task of ensuring there are names tags on each of guests at their table. Works very well. And, you can’t go wrong reintroducing yourself. Perhaps, just perhaps, the other person knows he/she has met you previously but doesn’t recollect your name either!
    A great web site. Always, always, enjoy your day!

    EGreat t
    And, and Excellent web

  • http://www.kaizenteacher.com/ Frank

    Say you’ve forgotten their name. They offer their first name you say, “No, I just meant your surname.” If they give their surname you say, “No I just meant your first name.”

  • http://www.screwcrew.com/ Andy Pels

    This is great. I have been focusing on using people’s names when I talk to them, but I have the same problem you do remembering names. Your tips remind me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry can’t remember his girlfriend’s name. He tries all of the tricks, but no dice.

    One I’ve tried when I know the name is unusual but can’t remember it is, “What is the correct way to pronounce your name?” leaning in with interest. But this one is chancy since it is possible I completely remember wrong, and the person will answer, “Susan.” or “Tom.” :}

  • Bob

    Ok, here’s my secret when confronted with having to introduce someone who’s name I should know to my partner (John).
    After a bit of conversation I say, “Oh I’m sorry. John this is…” And at that point I erupt into a coughing fit (you know like when you accidentally inhale saliva?) I gesture to them to continue the introductions without me as I hack and cough until the mystery person’s name is revealed.
    Works like a charm.

  • Alice

    I do the “generous, I think *you’ve* forgotten *my* name trick”, which is where you walk up to them and say o “Hi, (I’m not sure you remember me) – I’m Alice”. The bit in parentheses is the bit that you can kind of say with your face, rather than explicitly

  • Ronit

    Hey Gretchen, I’ve been following your from a distance. Good stuff. Come to Portland. I’ll show up

  • Christa

    As I am having the problem with remembering the right words in the right time, I searched the topic. I found one program, which is scientifically researched and proven to help with memory. In one interview a man who has alzheimer says that his remembering did not get worse, it got a lot better.You can get more info here: http://www.privatedimension.at/mind_power_perfection.html
    I have it for several days now. While I listen to the recordings I feel better, somewhat happier.

    Christa

  • Christa

    As I am having the problem to remember the right word at the right time, I searched for the topic some time ago. I found a program which was scientifically researched and is proven to strenghten the mind. In an interview, which one can download, a man who had alzheimer, said, that since he listens to the recordings regularly his mind got a lot better.
    You can read more about it here: http://www.privatedimension.at/mind_power_perfection.html

    I am having the program for several days. Whenever I listen to the recording I feel better, somehow happier. It is said to make people feel more alive, motivated and make people focus on their goals or whatever one plans to do. It is a combination of sounds of different frequencies. It sounds kind of odd.
    This program will surely help lots of people who have the problems of remembering.
    Christa

  • http://glennhilton.com Glenn Hilton

    Great post Gretchen. I agree that it’s super important that you try and remember people’s names that you’ve met before. Personally I like to try to err on the side of being up front where at all possible. However, I’ve found that some pre-emptive work can be done to help you not get into a situation where you can’t remember someone’s name. Here’s some name tips from a post I wrote in our company blog (see point #5 – “Hey there… you!”): http://imagexmedia.com/blog/2009/9/maximize-your-roi-conferences-and-events-–-part-2-its-all-about-people.

    Just to cite a recent example: This week I was in a mtg pitching our company’s services to a committee of 20 people at a local University and as each came into the room, I stood up and introduced myself to each of them and then repeated their names back immediately in conversation. Then I jotted each of there names down on a piece of paper and added a note about each of them to remember them. I then repeated their names to myself through out the meeting and referred to each of them by name when they asked a question. Upon arriving back at the office, I added them to our CRM so that I’ll have it on hand to review before we go to the next meeting. By taking an approach like this you can try and do your best to remember everyone’s names from that context. This goes a long way in showing people you care and giving you a better opportunity for future business interactions. However that being said, with as much preventative measure as possible, you still will undoubtedly forget people’s names. And in that case, again I aim to scan the room before I’ve even met the people in it to see if there’s anyone I recognize and then if I can’t remember their name, I’ll watch to see who they’re talking to that I know. Then I’ll approach that individual and ask them the name of the person. This may seem like a lot of work, but I’ve found it really pays off. People like to work with those they like and trust, and remembering someones name, though a small thing, can go a long way in helping someone feel like you care.

  • weezy

    Gretchen, We have a wonderful book store in Thomasville ,Georgia about 30 miles north of Tallahassee, Florida. We would love to have you visit , and yes there would be a crowd…..

  • Elizabeth

    Hi, those are great suggestions for remembering somebody’s name. I have a lot of trouble with this, my extreme myopia to take my contacts out, I can’t recognise anyone more than four or five metres away from me. My own best tool is to admit openly that I do not remember anyone’s names until it’s been told to me about 20 times. There are two things to be careful of with the tips here – Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers shows that the “one-sided introduction dodge” is not always reliable. In some cultures, too-obviously remembering names comes across as creepy. If someone I don’t really know drops my name into the conversation every second sentence, I start looking for an escape route!

  • Antony Chilton

    As always you touch on a subject with such charm and tact!

    Ever a pleasure to read your work, always brightens my mornings!

  • anyaflannery

    My son loves you.
    Sometimes he sends me your stuff, but now I’d like to get it directly. Thanks for your lovely contributions to world happiness. What could be wrong with that?

  • Sandy

    I have the same problem – I love all your suggestions. I have a suggestion for how to avoid the p[roblem in the first place. My husband went to a presentation years ago, and the speaker greeted everyone as they entered the room. when he got up to speak, he called off all of their names, all 200 of them! He said his secret is to say the person’s name at least 3 times when introduced – “Nice to meet you, Jim”, “what do you do, Jim”, “see yoy later, Jim”.

    I have found this really useful. I also have started saying the person’s name in my mind when I pass them in the hall, or see them in a meeting, that way I am more likely to remember it later.

  • Shannon

    If I’m with someone and another approaches who I know but can’t remember their name I say, “com’on everyone, be friendly, introduce yourselves.”

  • B

    I used to work with an ER doctor who always introduced himself to the patient as, “I’m Joe Jones, have we met?” that way the patient would remind him, yes I saw you last week or last year and it put the remembering on the patient, it was great!

  • http://www.jonathanpatterson.com/ Detroit Web Design

    I used to be in the habit of forgetting names as soon as I was told. To get over that I try to say their name right back… “Good to meet you Joe.” This way I prompt myself to consciously think of the name. It’s harder when there are several people but if it’s just one then it usually works well.

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  • http://blog.midiaeffects.com.br/ Renata

    So funny! And useful. I’m sending this to my mother right now!

  • Name

    These are great- but what do you do when people remember your name and chronically mis-pronounce it? If you correct them all the time all they remember is that they have trouble saying your name. And you get a reputation for being cranky.
    Thoughts?

    • Laura

      My last name is easy to mispronounce. I stopped feeling cranky when I started embracing ALL the pronunciations and mistakes. I’ll answer to anything, just keep calling! Then it’s all good.
      Now I use one of the most common mistakes as my moniker at restaurants–I tell them the easier but wrong name on purpose. That helps the receptionist, and makes it fun for me and my friends.

  • http://www.danielhahn.me/blog Daniel

    I am awful at remembering people’s names! I think it’s more of a listening problem than anything. People will tell me their name and I am already thinking about what I’m going to say next, so I don’t even catch their name. It’s sad really. I think the “What was your last name again” dodge will probably work best in my situation. Great info!

  • http://bodybuildingcoupons.org/ jason

    I believe that I am the worst person in America at remembering names : ). I try but I still suck.

  • W Leweck

    I would definitely come and bring some friends. I could also help to arrange a reading at my wonderfully supportive local independent bookstore. I live in historic Exeter, NH.