What to do when you forget someone’s name

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Jerry Seinfeld did it all wrong when he couldn’t remember someone’s name but Elaine came to his rescue by introducing herself

We’ve all experienced that moment of panic when you happen to meet someone you know, an acquaintance, a neighbour, a past or present colleague, a friend of a friend, a parent of your kid’s friend, your best mate’s ex of a year ago, and your mind goes blank.

You just can’t remember their name. You feel awkward and embarrassed, and wish you’d dodged round the other aisle in the supermarket or pretended to be absorbed in your phone before it was too late.

Don’t let on that you’ve forgotten…

…at least not at once. This situation isn’t just about you. None of us like it when someone forgets our name. What, we worked in the same place for five years, and I made such an impression that you can’t even remember what I’m called? We bonded over a bottle of wine at that hen party, and you can’t remember my name?

Don’t guess

Being called by the wrong name is somehow worse than not being called anything. It’s as if you’ve been given a different identity, and it’s strangely disconcerting.

Fish for clues

Guide the conversation into an area which will jog your memory. Ask about family, friends, places, interests.

  • Anything new going on with you?
  • What kind of summer did you have?
  • How are the Christmas preparations going?
  • What’s keeping you busy these days?
  • How’s work?

Use unfinished sentences:

  • So are you still…
  • The last time we met must have been at…
  • Have you just come from…

Help each other out

Come on, we’ve all been there. Give each other something to work with. If you’re asked, ‘What are you up to these days?’ don’t just say ‘Oh, you know, the same old same old.’ Be a sport.

Take the initiative

If they don’t actually say your name when greeting you, you could assume you are both in the same situation.

Jump in smartly and say ‘I’m Danny,’ or just gesture to yourself and say ‘Danny’, with a little smile and self-deprecating nod as if saying you wouldn’t presume to think they remembered you. The other person will follow suit with their own name, and there you are.

Ask for contact details

If you’ve got to the end of your encounter and you’re none the wiser, you could say:

‘It’s been great catching up. Can we swap phone numbers/contacts?’

Then you will have name and number safely stowed.

If it’s a work situation, you could exchange cards.

When you’ve been told someone’s name and can’t remember it

You’re on your own with this one, unless someone in your group helpfully uses the person’s name. It’s probably best to ask. Don’t over-apologise, but at a suitable point say:

  • Remind me of your name?
  • Could you tell me your name again? I didn’t quite catch it
  • Did you get my name just then? I’m Dawn. (Pause for reciprocal offering)

A little trick

This strategy is well-established and might work. When you don’t want someone to know you’ve forgotten their name, you ask what it is , and when they say, ‘Phil,’ you say, ‘Oh, I know you’re Phil, it’s your last name that has slipped my memory.’

Own up

You can take the sting out of many things if you say them with a smile. There’s nothing wrong with, ‘Sorry, memory block, you’re…?’

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