Forgetting somebody’s name is the worst.
It’s embarrassing enough on its own, of course, but what makes it truly awful is that it comes with the added discomfort of knowing you may be insulting someone in the process.
The problem is that remembering names is hard! And simply declaring, “I’m no good at remembering names,” though perhaps slightly disarming, doesn’t actually solve the problem. Admitting fault gets you nowhere closer to remembering — and worse, it might inadvertently be communicating something more like, “I don’t care to try to remember names.”
Fortunately, not all is lost. I’ve fluctuated throughout my life between that guy who seems to be able to easily remember names to the guy who embarrassingly has to ask someone several times in the same conversation what his or her name is.
So, instead of leaving it up to chance, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands and actually work on remembering names.
If you identify with the “I’m no good at remembering names” crowd, but are ready to step up your game, try these methods that have worked for me:
1. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Meeting new people can be nerve-wracking. Often I’m so preoccupied with making a good impression with somebody new that I forget to listen to and remember his or her name. Realizing this about myself, I’ll go out of my way to repeat the name during conversation. I might even go out of my way to introduce my new acquaintance to someone else. It’s a way to spend more time on it, so that it can really sink in.
If nothing else, I’ll try to repeat the new name in my head over and over again. It might sound weird — and I sometimes feel weird doing it — but it really helps.
2. Ask personal questions.
Part of why I don’t remember names sometimes is that I don’t learn enough about a person to make him or her distinguishable from anybody else. Again, part of this is because meeting new people can be difficult, and we revert to small talk and safe, easy conversation just to keep it going and prevent awkwardness.
It’s helpful then to have some questions on hand. More often than not, names do carry meaning, and I’ve found that people like sharing about it. If someone’s name is one you don’t often hear, like Constance, you could comment on its uniqueness or ask whether it’s a family name. A story will often follow. For instance, my family started out with Audrey, Isaac, and Elliot because my parents wanted to avoid hard consonant sounds at the beginning of names.
Learning these little details attach a story to the name and make it more memorable.
3. To nickname or not to nickname?
Just after graduating high school, I met a man named Christopher. He was one of the kindest, most pleasantly soft-spoken people I had met up until that point. But get him started on nicknames, and he became, well, slightly less soft-spoken. He could opine for a half hour about how people presume to call him Chris, just because, and it really bothers him. Any old non-Christopher might see Chris as the obvious thing to call all Christophers. Not this Christopher.
Now, not only do I know not to presume someone’s nickname, I’ll never forget Christopher’s name, either. Of course, it can work the other way, too. We call my brother Elliot “Bubba” and my sister Catherine (with a hard C!) “Doll” and, let’s be honest, those are fabulous nicknames, and hard to forget.
4. Return to it.
I do a fair amount of event planning, and so I’m meeting a lot of people at these events. And because I’m often running around taking care of things during an event, I don’t have much time for extended conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I see people month after month and I remember meeting them but can’t remember their names for the life of me.
So I’ve started to make lists of the people I met at these events. Then, before going back again the next month, I’ll return to the list and refresh my memory of the people I met the last time. And it helps! But sometimes writing down the names isn’t enough.
5. Use The Facebook.
Not to brag or anything, but I opened a Facebook account back when it was the facebook.com, back when you needed a .edu email address to join and you could only connect with people from your same university. Back then, we had no idea what to do with the thing (and I’m not sure Facebook did either), other than to “poke” cute coeds. Apparently, you can still do this. I would not recommend.
What was it useful for, then and now? Remembering names! After all, it’s still just a glorified picture directory. I’ve also found that when you see people post status updates and replies and whatnot, I learn more about them, and it’s got their name and face attached to everything they post, so their names are continually being reinforced. You just hope they don’t get all creative and use some sort of pseudonym for their online persona.
6. Ask for help.
Remember, most people struggle to remember names, too, and often other people are trying to come up with ways to remember them just as much as you are. Comparing notes can help in this regard.
You might even ask the person point blank. This is especially helpful when it comes to identical twins. Think about it: all their lives they’ve had people struggle not only to remember their names but to tell them apart. They are probably happy to help!
In college, there were these identical twins who didn’t cut or style their hair differently. They even both had moles in the exact same spot above their right eyebrows. But they were happy to share that one was a tiny mole (Todd) while the other was bigger, you might even say grande (Gary) if you habla español.
7. Take an educated guess.
So you’ve met this person before, and his name is on the tip of your tongue. Test your memory and guess! Standardized testing courses instruct that your first guess is typically your best guess, for all sorts of reasons. People are usually expecting to have to re-introduce themselves anyway, so if you guess the correct name, they’ll be impressed, and if you guess wrong, they probably won’t be offended, anyway. And I’ve often noticed that people typically appreciate the effort, even when you’re wrong.
Ultimately, remembering names mostly just comes down to caring enough to try. Realizing that names are important to people and relationships is half the battle, and making an effort to remember them is most of the trouble. Have a sense of humor about it, and don’t be afraid to ask again (and again) if necessary.
8. Don’t expect perfection.
Finally, as much as I’d like to say otherwise, there’s not necessarily a magic formula for learning names. It’s going to take effort, and there’s a bit of trial and error involved. One of the biggest lessons to learn when it comes to learning and remembering names is to not be afraid of failure. Try as you may, every once in a while you’ll probably still forget people’s names, you’ll get names wrong, you’ll have to ask people again, and you’ll have to be corrected. That’s just part of the deal.
Ultimately, I try to remember names, because I want to do a better job of recognizing the value of each individual person. By taking the time to see the person in front of me — and learn his or her name — I emphasize and validate the person’s individuality, uniqueness, and inherent dignity.