How to survive forgetting someone's name
How many times have you been introduced to someone and totally forgotten their name?
It’s happened to me more times than I can count. It even happened yesterday, when I was introduced to a woman for the third time. Whenever her name is spoken, a little hatch opens in my mind. It’s the hatch to that place where all of the things I have forgotten reside. The name is thrown inside to join the Periodic Table, the Ancient Wonders of the World, and all those random facts that come up in quiz nights when you know that you once knew the answer but can’t quite recall it, contributing to your team coming to second to last. Forgetting a name once is forgivable, and twice a little embarrassing, but such things happen, right? Three times, though, is a different story. Three times has the potential to get awkward.
Turns out we shouldn’t feel bad about forgetting someone’s name. Psychologists say that names are easy to forget for the following four reasons: names are arbitrary, they don’t have synonyms, they can contain multiple words, and they are low-frequency words. I suppose that makes sense. If every Bob you ever met was a bald builder, it would be easy to remember. Similarly, if every Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could be called the name of any of the four apostles, it wouldn’t matter if you forgot which name belonged to which. Two people having the same name doesn’t mean anything or help you remember them either. There is a woman in Christchurch with my same name, birth month and year, and apart from our name we have nothing in common. Unless of course she also has my irrational fear of sharing a name with someone super famous, a fear I’ve harboured ever since reading about the other, non hit-me-baby Britney Spears that is forced to go by ‘Brit’. Indeed, there are many reasons why names are so hard to remember. Knowing that, however, doesn’t help you in that awkward moment when you realise you have forgotten someones name and you have to use it.
How, then, to survive that awkward situation? Here are my top tips.
Suggest everyone wear name badges
You know the type: the ones that say ‘hello my name is … ‘
Granted, this suggestion might seem a little weird if it’s a casual get-together or what-not. Or, it’s the work lunchroom, and you see the people most days even if you have forgotten someone’s name. But, hey. It might work.
Pro-tip: provide a vivid rather than a light pen with a 0.5 nib. If the name is written in the latter you may have to squint to read it, and starting intently at someone’s general chest area may risk creating offence even greater than not knowing the name in the first place.
The sneaky introduction
This is my favourite: the sneaky introduction, a conversation that will hopefully go like this:
You to Person X: This is Bob.
Bob to Person X: Hi!
Person X to Bob: Hi, Bob. I’m Griselda Mc Forgotten Name.
You: Silently trying to remember Griselda’s name for future use.
Of course, this only works if Person X/Griselda Mc Forgotten Name plays ball. Worst case scenario they just smile at Bob or say hello without offering up any more, and no-one is any the wiser.
The internet snoop
This won’t save you in the short term, but can help if you know you’ll meet them again. And, if you get caught snooping, you can read all my advice about what to do here.
The internet snoop only works if you know a little about them already. Unfortunately, plugging ‘random woman I met at party’ into a search engine might not yield good results. And you don’t want to get caught out if their online name is different than their actual name. Or if their name is John Smith.
But – it might work. The person you are trying to learn more about might be in the slim minority of people that actually look like their Facebook photo. Who knows?
The SOS to a friend
This is the most common method, the old sotto-voice ‘what’s her name again?’ to a trusted ally. This may work, although it would depend on the other person knowing themselves of course.
If Griselda Mc Forgotten Name is a master of stealth, it might not help at all. In which case, all that is left is …
… Owning up. Giving a wee smile and saying: “I’m so sorry, I forgot your name.”
Who knows? They may even laugh with relief because they forgot your name as well. You can then swap names, progress to the next stage of awkward small talk, and live happy ever after on the periphery of each other’s lives.
Worst case scenario – which admittedly would be a bit shit – the person whose name you have forgotten flies into an ego-filled rage and takes out a vendetta against you.
If that happens, you could always tell them that you have forgotten their name because it is an arbitrary non-synonym that is low frequency. If you do that, they may run away so quickly and never return, so your poor memory won’t matter anyway.
And now I am off to internet-snoop to try and find out the name of that woman I was introduced to for the third time yesterday. If that fails, there are always the ‘hello my name is … ‘ stickers. I think I’ll save the owning-up awkward conversation for another day.