Name Blindness
July 24, 2014 9:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm somewhat notable in my professional field and I meet a ton of new people weekly, as attending social events is part of my job (cocktail parties, art openings, etc.) It often takes 3-4 times before I can remember someone's name, or to even recognize their face. However, they recognize me instantly, and approach me with great familiarity, a hug, like we're buddies. I panic. It gets awkward. "Excuse me, ma'am, how did we meet?" seems such an rude question, especially when they act so intimate with me. (This happens weekly!) What can I say to people in this situation that doesn't offend them, but will divulge our (thinly) established relationship?

Maybe it's psychological (face blindness?) or maybe people don't make a lasting impression (hey, we chatted months ago for 5 minutes), but I want to remain friendly and sensitive to social awkwardness. thanks!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
"Tell me what's been going on since the last time we talked?" It's not quite a cocktail party question, but at least allows you a chance to hear a 'recap'.

Chatting about unrelated things (the kind of art at the opening, etc) might be something you can do -- essentially, doing small talk.

You could be direct and honest about it in a jokey way, if you can pull it off: "forgive me, but I have the facial memory of a goldfish, etc"

You could also go to fewer functions and social events.


The other aspect of it is that I find that one's enthusiasm meeting people is spread across the number of people you know at a function; if you go to a social event and you know one person there, you'll be very happy to meet and talk to that person. If you go to an event and you know a dozen people, you'll be less energetic/visibly excited to talk to each person.

This is to say - for those who are greeting you so warmly with great familiarity, this may be because 1) you're notable in your professional field, and they feel positively towards you, and 2) you might be one of the only people you know there, so you become a target for all of their enthusiasm. So keeping that in mind may help you feel less guilty about not being responsive to their intimacy.
posted by suedehead at 10:12 PM on July 24, 2014

After some 20 years of not seeing someone, he did not remember my name. He said, "Help me out with your name," while smiling warmly, taking my hand, and then changing it over into a hug when I told him. I don't know how anybody could be offended by that, and I use it now, frequently, plus or minus the hug, depending.

I think saying "Help me..." makes it clear that the fault is mine, not the other person's.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:22 PM on July 24, 2014 [34 favorites]

Can you just try harder to remember names? I'm not naturally good at remembering the people I meet, but I've learned to focus very hard on it. Forgetting someone you've already been introduced to 3 times makes a poor impression and I don't know that there's any clever comment you can make to workaround that. In my opinion, it's socially important enough that it's worth expending a lot of effort on getting better at. "I'm bad with names" just doesn't always cut it.

There are plenty of good tips online for improving the listening and memorization skills associated with learning names and faces. For me, once I started making a big effort to remember names, it became a habit to repeat someone's name in my head upon meeting them, form associations to help jog my memory, etc. and this problem became less of an issue for me.
posted by horizons at 10:32 PM on July 24, 2014

I try the old "using the persons name while talking to them" trick to try and get it to lodge in my terrible memory. It works reasonably well for me, better if I can tie it down to some personal information - Ben who works in marketing with a son that plays soccer etc etc.

If that fails, I usually just come out with it (I'm sorry, I'm blanking on your name! I'm having a senior/blonde moment! Gosh, I'm sorry - what's your name again?) and try to laugh it off.

Occasionally, I'll just ask some leading questions (What have you been up to? How have you been? How's life been treating you? What's new?) and see if I can puzzle it out. Sometimes that will jog something loose, but if it doesn't you run the risk of looking a bit silly when you have to back track to option 1.
posted by ninazer0 at 11:07 PM on July 24, 2014

I write the names down.

I am terrible with names but I have a vivid memory for images and events so for the first two months after my son started school I had an index card with the other kids names and their parents names and usually something about them I would remember (has rainbow woven baby wrap, drives tiny ridiculous car, always wears crocs etc) and something I should remember (where they work, when the baby is due, shared interests etc).

This is great for a big group of people. I can take a photo of the card to reference in my phone. If it's just one or two people I put the notes in my phone right on that persons contact card (Married to Blah, who works at Foo, kids Blah and Baby Blah, gluten free, likes outdoor activities, introduced by SomeBlah, taking part time classes in X).

When we exchange texts I can do a quick scan of their details and remember their story.

Finally when in a meeting/class flip my agenda over and very tiny around the top and side edges I put tiny arrows with each persons name relative to my position. I can later on put this info into my phone or index card as relevant. This last technique also works on any scrap of paper or email to self on the fly with a name and memorable description (black suit, red tie, works at bank). After the event go through the notes and organize them as above.
posted by saradarlin at 12:11 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I deal with this daily. I do IT support in an academic environment. I generally start off with new faculty and staff with an apology in advance. "I'm sorry, but I may seem like I don't remember you until you give me a context." After handling enough phone and/or in-person dealings with a person, they stick. I often remember the problem, and thankfully the solution, before I can remember the name.

Now, I'm a mid-forties-aged lady, so I hope no one thinks I'm having a dementia moment. Because I'm solving computer problems, the clients understand that I'm having to keep up with computer crap. So, they are happy when I show up, see their face, smile, and fix their stuff with a good attitude.

I also write names down, but that log only works for so long. I also have to deal with a case logging program. That's great for usernames.

When I'm out on the town and folks are nice and tell me how I've been good to them, I say something like, "I'm so glad I was able to make your day better. That makes me happy. I'm sorry I'm awful at names, but I remember [this situation]." And they forgive me, I think because they know they resonated in my memory somehow. I'll probably also mention again that I am so HORRIBLE at names and I'm sorry.

I don't know if this helps in your professional situation, but it sure has in mine.
posted by lilywing13 at 1:05 AM on July 25, 2014

If you have a "wing man" such as your partner with you, this person can help you out by introducing themselves directly to this person, which should prompt them to introduce themselves back.

If you can fake it to the point where you begin to remember the person themselves, and you can discuss something that they told you last time, you can get away more easily with saying "Now, I remember YOU clearly but I have completely forgotten your name!"
posted by emilyw at 1:09 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have this problem. It's also hard for me to place people if I see them out of context, even if I know them pretty well in-context. I have taken to just admitting my weakness. "I'm sorry, I'm terrible with names and faces. Can you remind me?" No one has ever been offended, and about 1/3 of the time the person says, "Oh, thank goodness, I'm terrible wtih that too, and asks for mine as well. Once they tell me their name, or that we met when our kids had swim classes together or whatever, it all clicks into place.

I've also started being pre-emptive when I meet someone. "It's so nice to meet you, name! I'm terrible with names so I'll probaby have to ask you a few times before it sticks." Again, one of the most common responses is, "I also have a problem with that! We'll just re-introduce ourselves!" and nobody has ever acted offended.
posted by not that girl at 5:09 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also find myself exposed to a constant stream of new people from doing talks, classes, workshops... there's just no way to remember all of those faces and names, and dare I say, not a lot of point to creating a structure to memorize the names of the thirty people I'm meeting right now because one of them might pop up at another event in a year's time, even though I'll likely never see the rest again. And because of social media I sometimes get that enthusiasm from people I really haven't met in person before!

I do a lot of "I'm so sorry, have we met?" when people are first approaching me for rounds of handshakes and the like. If that moment passes, I go with "I'm so sorry, I'm terrible with names, what's your name again?"

Then you can cover for lack of meaningful context to place them with questions like "So how have you been?" or "How are things for you these days?" or "What do you think about $event_topic? The nice thing about these kinds of open-ended questions is you can get some context for who they are and what their lives are like, which helps to ease them into long-term memory (or sometimes jogs them back from long-term memory where they were hiding.)

Finally, I find I remember people better if I've had a substantive conversation with them. It's basically impossible to remember somebody whose hand you shook once nine months ago, but the longer and more engaged you are in what you talk about together, the better the odds are they'll stick around in memory.
posted by Andrhia at 5:16 AM on July 25, 2014

Smile warmly and say, "It's good to see you!" Then follow up with a question or comment about the event you're currently at, like, "What do you think of the exhibit?" That way you avoid awkwardness about what you're supposed to know about them based on your past interactions.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:42 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If these are planned, invite events ask for the guest list (or RSVP list) in advance. I've had several people do this (or have their admins make the request) for events I've planned (they usually call a day or two before the event and phrase it as "would you mind sharing your RSVP list with our office? As you know, Mr. X will be attending the event and he would like to try and make sure he's connecting with certain people."

We wouldn't do this for everyone (but, again, most people don't ask) but if you're that notable, it's a pretty routine ask for our events office.

(This assumes that these are professional and/or fundraising events, not strictly social cocktail parties.)
posted by anastasiav at 5:50 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

(This is not an answer to your question but worth mentioning, because if everyone did this, it would help a lot, I think:

Because I hate it when I can't remember people, and I know most people also find it awkward, when I go up to someone I've met before, I try to remember to re-introduce myself -- "Hi Jane, so nice to see you [hand shake], it's girlpublisher from [last event I remember the person from]". Sometimes the person says "of course i know you!" but i'd rather that, then have them distracted while we catch up trying to remember who the hell I am.)
posted by girlpublisher at 6:50 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a lousy head for names, and I see a lot of people I'd like to call by name every day. I often deal with this by front-loading the embarrassment/annoyance of forgetting the name on to the moment I meet someone. When I ask a new acquaintance their name, I'll immediately warn them that I'll probably ask them again at least two more times, possibly more. It becomes something of a joke, and a surprising amount of the time, the person will confess to having the same problem.
posted by itstheclamsname at 7:29 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I usually tell people when I meet them "listen, I'm terrible with names and I'm meeting lots of folks tonight, please don't be offended if it takes me a while to remember your name the next time I see you".

Because of this, when I see someone at the next event who I actually do remember, I take the initiative by offering my hand and saying "Hi I'm Vign, we met at such-and-such last month..." to which people usually respond "Of course!" and then go on to impress me with how much they've remembered from the encounter while all I've remembered is some snippet. Sigh. It's the reason why I never went into sales...

Love the "Help me out with your name" script, I'll be adding that to my repetoire.
posted by vignettist at 7:45 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

So everyone else has given you great responses, but if you wanted to see if you are actually below average on this sort of thing, my lab has some great online tests here.
posted by katers890 at 8:31 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another option would be to straight up ask when the last time you saw each other was. It's less obviously I-don't-remember-you, and comes off as how-long-has-it-been? but can give you a nice reminder.
posted by mchorn at 8:49 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Hi, I just totally blanked out on your name." Nobody gets offended when I do that because everyone's done it at one point or another.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:08 PM on July 25, 2014

If you meet enough people it's going to be impossible to remember who they are and where you know them from, unless you are extraordinarily gifted in that particular skill.

If your regular workday puts you around many people who are having what are very memorable experiences for them, they are going to remember you much better than you remember them most of the time.

I've had two concurrent jobs where people tended to really remember me, and at that time I was always getting approached in places like the grocery store. "Hi!!" -- oh noes, I have no idea who this person is. I'd just be friendly back, and sometimes they would drop a hint in the conversation that let me know where they recognized me from. Most of the time if you act friendly and interested in the person they will end up feeling happy to have talked to you and like you "remember" them.

If you know that there are going to be people at an event who you absolutely must recognize, it can be helpful to go over names (and photos if you have them) of who will be there.

approach me with great familiarity, a hug, like we're buddies

In some fields/places/social groups this is just a thing, and a hug doesn't mean you are buddies so much as you might think.
posted by yohko at 4:14 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agreed with everything yohko said. At some point it's hard to remember everyone but just being friendly will help you out. Also, try to repeat people's names when you meet them the first time.

Like just about everything, this is something you can get better at with practice.
posted by sweetkid at 8:22 PM on July 25, 2014

I usually fake my way through it: "It's great to see you!", a few small talk questions about the event or how their day was, and then "when was the last time we saw each other?" If I still have no clue after that I wait until I'm talking to a closer friend and ask them for the name. This might seem disingenuous, but networking is important in my field as well, and my difficulty retaining names can be seen as personal, which it isn't.
posted by alicetiara at 9:01 AM on July 26, 2014

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