6 Tips For Coping When You’ve Forgotten Someone’s Name

Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

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 go 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.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.



8 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I can engage in a conversation with strangers at work, and remember the conversation and faces for the future which kind of flips people out working the retail part of my life. Just a name at random attached to a face, forget it. I have unending songs I remember, yet many of the artists singing the songs are not attached in the memory.

    The same as seeing you on Nate, the Gretchen sounded familiar – then when they put you and your book together I knew who you were. 🙂 Many times I am just up front with people and make it clear I remember the circumstances and conversations which I had with them – though I am not as readily able to tie the names. As a rule they readily give their name knowing I did not forget time spent previously.

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    I have a question:  are there others like me that may not be able to remember someone we knew well 20 years ago but haven’t seen since (I usually then say – with a warm hug – “I can’t believe I am seeing you after all this time”.  Sooner or later, the name will pop up one way or another!), but why is it I can easily name every serious boyfriend I had from my early teen years as if it were yesterday?  It isn’t just the name either, but I am call up very specific situations – and more in detail.  It isn’t that I am reverting to childhood — as I know someone will say that — but for no reason at all, one will flash through my head.  . always with good thoughts. 

    And why is it these same boys (OK, men now, but boys to me – sorry!) who I hadn’t seen since I was 19 either wrote or called me out of the blue when I was 55 to 60, just mentioning their first name and, of course, I knew who it was.  But why?  The result:  if I were to give advice to others, I would say “don’t do it”.  Way back then when we were young and innocent, we were left with pretty wonderful memories some of the time.  The conversations were easy and lengthy each time, but, somehow, the sacred bubble left over time burst.  I would have preferred the memory to have been left intact. 

    Same with some childhood girl friends.  Yes, I remember your first name.  I remember the good times.  But – with a couple of exceptions when we took off where we left off as kids – we found we had nothing really in common.  It was better to let it go at that.

    So childhood names – no problem.  It is larger social occasions now that I almost panic over — as I am afraid I will be expected to not only remember but introduce my husband to a social acquaintance of long standing.  What can I do?  I end up steering him away — far away. 

    I tell myself – to make myself feel better — it is just that I know far too many people.  And that is really kidding myself!!!

    • avatar Linda Myers says:

      In childhood there is so much interaction beyond a name, the older we get the names tend to become just data, many times without any relative connection beyond the face.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Linda —

        YOU are absolutely right  and you spoke what I hadn’t put a finger on yet.  I love to have my eyes opened!

  3. avatar Rho says:

    I can remember almost everything, and person, since I was about 1 year old.  Scares me sometimes,

  4. avatar Lila says:

    The “nomenclator” still exists in today’s receiving lines or “rope lines” but is referred to as the “announcer.”

  5. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Well, mmm, when I can’t remember someone’s name I tell the truth, which is very simple: I have an excellent memory for faces (probably too good, as faces tend to trigger immediate emotional/mental responses which can lead to associations with positive or negative memories that are not always complete), but names tend to elude me. I say it with a smile, and I sincerely apologize. It works 99% of the time, which is fine with me. I don’t see any need to awkwardly dissemble…people generally realize that you’ve forgotten their name when you engage in, ahem, clever ways to find out what it is.

    And never, ever, ask for the spelling. Nothing worse than having the person slowly recite, “T-O-M” while giving you a look that clearly questions your educational achievements.

  6. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Yet again a great article Gretchen!

    #1 and 6 ALWAYS works for me. Love it!