Remembering People's Names
It's common to forget people's names, and that sometimes lead to a mildly embarrassing or awkward situation. Here are my thoughts on how to remember people's names, and what to do if you do forget.
Everyone's bad with names
You'll sometimes hear people sheepishly admit they're bad with names, as if they have a rare shortcoming. In my experience having some trouble remembering names is the rule, not the exception. And the people who are good with names work at it. It's not something they were born with.
The human brain doesn't seem set up to recall names. We can effortlessly remember people and details about them ("She's the older woman in my hiking group. She's in an embroidery club. Her son's getting married at the end of the summer. She just visited her brother in Denmark.") But when it comes to retrieving that arbitrary sound we use to refer to them, it's easy to come up blank. So do your best to remember people's names, but don't get too down on yourself if you forget sometimes.
Accept it's way harder to remember names in some situations
The worst scenario for remembering names is when you're quickly introduced to a bunch of people at once. Even if you sincerely try to remember, it can be too much information to hold in your short-term memory at once. If you're given a bunch of names one after the other, you don't have much time to use any memory aids either. Again, still give it your best shot, but realize any normal person would struggle in those circumstances.
In my experience the best way to "remember" people's names is to discreetly make a note of it in your phone the first chance you get
I'll share some standard name-remembering techniques below, but this is what works best for me based on what I've tried over the years. Your memory can always fail you. Even if you successfully remember an acquaintance's name at first, if you go a few months without seeing them it may slip your mind. A little document in your phone's Notes app is much more dependable, especially if it's synced to the cloud. Just write something simple like, Rec volleyball league - Has red hair and glasses - John. If you're heading to an event and can't remember the name of a friend of a friend who will be there, you can quickly look it up.
If you're introduced to many people at once you may not be able to keep everyone's name in your head until you can find a moment to write everything down, but like I said, that situation is tricky no matter what. If you're in a professional setting you could get someone's business card, then transfer the info to your phone later on. Another option is to add them on social media, though there's a small risk they'll change their display name.
Some people chafe at the idea of using an external memory aid. They may even feel there's something strange and artificial about making a cheat sheet. I don't care about that. I just know it helps.
Consciously try to remember people's names
A big reason people have trouble remembering names is they don't put active effort into it. They'll be introduced to a bunch of guests at a party and assume they'll automatically hold onto the information. That doesn't work. Sometimes you'll shake hands with six people and literally forget all their names 30 seconds later. When you meet someone new you need to remind yourself, "I have to try to remember their name. It's likely to slip my mind otherwise."
Focus on learning people's names
A big reason people have trouble consciously trying to remember names is that their heads are elsewhere. They're thinking about what they want to order for lunch, or that they hate how nervous they get at parties, or if their outfit looks okay, or what they're going to say in the meeting, or a million other things. It's fine to have other stuff on your mind, but when you're introducing yourself to someone, try to put all that aside for a moment.
Tell yourself everyone is important enough to try remembering their name
We may not much effort into remembering someone's name if we unconsciously conclude they're not worth the trouble. Like if we're introduced to a co-worker's friend who's visiting from out of town. We may think, "I'll never see them again after today, so why bother remembering their name?" But what if you have to use their name that day? What if you do see them again?
It can be worth thinking about when you try to remember someone's name and when you tend not to bother. You may find you have some bad habits, like assuming people who look like they belong to a certain group aren't worth your time.
Try various techniques to try to lock a person's name into your memory
Experiment and see if any work for you more easily than others. Some of these tricks may feel too involved and elaborate, while others might click:
- If you have a conversation with the person soon after, try to use their name a couple of times in it - But don't overdo it, as that will sound unnatural.
- If they have a name with a short and long form, ask which they prefer - "It's Stephen? Do you ever go by Steve? No? Okay, got it."
- If their name is a bit different, ask them to spell it out for you - Hearing it in a different form may help you retain it.
- Come up with a rhyme for their name - It doesn't matter if it's goofy, as long as it sticks in your brain (e.g., "Jenn, Jenn, writes with a pen.")
- Associate them with a celebrity who shares their name - E.g., "Robert... Robert Downey Jr."
- Make a mental image that will remind you their name - Again, it doesn't have to make much sense. For example, "Jasmine... Jasmine tea... Jasmine sitting on top of a pile of tea leaves.")
- Associate a feature of their appearance with their name - E.g., "Bianca's got blonde hair... Blonde Bianca."
- Make an alliteration with their name - E.g., "Blonde Bianca" from the last suggestion. If you can combine techniques they can work even better.
Be careful about telling people you've forgotten their name
If you remember someone's name it may make them feel a little more valued. Or maybe not. It's often just thought of as a baseline expectation. On the other hand, if you forget someone's name that can hurt their feelings.
On one level we all know humans aren't good at remembering names. But on another level we sometimes can't help but take it personally if someone forgets ours. It feels even worse if:
- You easily remembered their name
- You've talked to them before, and felt like you connected, if only a little
- They tell you they've forgotten your name in a casual or dismissive tone
- They forget your name multiple times
When you hear that, "Sorry, what's your name again?" it can sting because it feels like what they're really saying is, "I didn't think you were worth remembering. I don't even care to try to hide it. That conversation we had, and our whole relationship? Doesn't mean as much to me as it does to you."
I'm not claiming people who forget your name always have bad intentions. You certainly don't when you blank on someone's. I'm saying if you tell them, they may not always take it well. Even if people don't think you're a callous jerk, if you forget and ask for someone's name multiple times they may see you as oblivious and tactless, like you're unaware of how your forgetfulness might hurt someone's feelings. So...
- If possible, try to find out their name some other way. Some options are: Asking someone else, jokingly reintroducing yourself again and hoping they give theirs too ("How's it going? It's been a while. I'm Noah in case you don't remember"), looking them up online, or checking the Attendees list of the Meetup.com event where you met
- If you need to tell them you've forgotten their name, make sure your tone and wording is a bit apologetic. You don't need to go over the top, but what you really want to avoid is sounding too blase and casual. That can be interpreted as, "Forgetting someone's name is a faux pas, but you're not important enough to me to act sorry about it."
- As soon as you can, write their name down. You already forgot it once. If you have to ask for it again you'll really risk seeming like you don't think much of them, or that you generally can't be bothered with remembering who people are.