It happens to everyone sooner or later. You run into someone you know, perhaps in an out-of-context setting, and you blank out on the person’s name. The situation becomes even more distressing if you’re in the presence of a colleague and an introduction seems in order. What to do when you forget someone's name?
According to Benjamin Levy, a private memory trainer and the author of Remember Every Name Every Time: Corporate America’s Memory Master Reveals His Secrets (Fireside Original/Simon & Schuster, 2002), although remembering names is an essential business and social skill in today’s fast-paced world, there’s no telling when your memory is going to flash an “out of order” sign. However, there’s no need to panic.
Here are Levy’s recommendations for how to cope when a name escapes you:
- NEVER guess! The only thing worse than letting someone know that you’ve forgotten his name is to call the person by someone else’s name.
- If you’re talking to two people who know you but don’t know each other, and you can only recall one of their names, say “Why don’t you introduce yourself to Henry?” to the mystery person. If both names escape you, say, “Why don’t you say hello to each other?”
- If you are with your spouse, and if you don’t immediately introduce him, have a private agreement that it means you don’t know the other person’s name. He can then jump in and say, “Hi, I’m Jack, Jill’s husband.” The other person will respond by introducing himself to Jack—and you’re off the hook.
- Use physical touch. Put an arm around the person’s shoulder or grasp their arm to connect with the person. This provides a form of intimacy that will help cover up the fact that you’ve forgotten their name.
- Use the “Hubert H. Humphrey Memorial Lower-Lumbar Maneuver.” According to Levy, Humphrey welcomed a gentleman into a conversation he was having with a colleague. The third man greeted both of them by name. Humphrey asked him with a look of concern, “How’s your back?” The man replied his back was better and thanked Humphrey for his concern. As the man walked away, Humphrey’s colleague asked him, “Who was that?” “I’m afraid I have no idea,” said Humphrey. “But you even asked about his bad back.” Humphrey replied, “Everybody my age has a bad back. Whenever I forget someone’s name, I ask him about his back.”
- “Go fishing.” Maybe some additional information will help. Say, “It’s been too long. When was the last time we saw each other?” Putting the face in context can help you come up with the name.
- Play cards. Carry a few blank Rolodex cards with you. If you see a familiar face at a business event and can't remember the person’s name, pull out a blank card and say, “Thank heaven you’re here. My Rolodex was misplaced during a reconfiguration at our office. Could you please write down your information?”
- Honesty is the best policy. Say, “Of course, I remember you, but your name has slipped my mind.” Mention whatever information you do remember about them—“We met last year at John and Alice’s party”—to show them that they’re not a total stranger. Or simply say, “I’m sorry. I’ve just gone completely blank.” or “Please remind me of your name.”
The flip side of forgetting a name is to help someone out if you think he's having trouble remembering yours, says Levy. He advises, “Never say, ‘Remember me?’ Instead, hit him with all the information he needs to place you: ‘Hi, I’m Jane Smith. The last time we met was at the International Banking Forum in Tucson.’”
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