Have we met?
May 18, 2022 4:05 AM   Subscribe

I (woman in mid-thirties) have a really, really hard time with all three components of remembering people I meet - I have a significant amount of face blindness (I will literally see and forget a face in minutes), I will either forget to get the name/forget it after some time, and sometimes, the faces and names are islands with no bridge connecting the same. This is especially bad when it comes to introductions at work. This, when I work in an industry where this is practically an essential skill. Why is this and how do I fix this?

I am friendly when I meet new people, will listen with attention and patience during conversations, and I have been told several times that people tend to come to me for help because I am reliable. I meet, I help/submit inputs/create whatever doohickey they want...I move on and their details fly straight out of my head.It is very embarrassing to meet the same people later and realize that they all remember me (I have a very unusual first name and it's a male dominated industry so I already stick out a bit as a woman) while I've forgotten every single identifying detail. My colleagues seem to have no trouble with this and have been really rather nice about helping me cover up some especially weird gaps, when they happen. I am good with remembering phone voices (and can remember additional details for these when required). I have a tremendously good memory for my actual work/case histories/numbers. Why is visual memory such a problem? How do I figure out a workaround? This is brought to you by the seventh instance of running into someone at work, who immediately called me by name and who I had a convivial chat with, all the while internally panicking about who on earth they are. And it's only Wednesday yet :(
Thanks in advance.
posted by Nieshka to Human Relations (35 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
1. Most people are cool about this, even if they totally remember your name they don't really mind if you say, "I know you, remind me of your first name," in fact they prefer it. (Riskier version, you say "it's Paul, right?" and they say "No, I'm Dave." "Oh yeah, Dave, right, sorry...")
2. As someone who suffers from the same problem, the only trick I try is to say the person's name a lot when you first meet them, in that annoying "How to Make Friends and Influence People" way, to see if it sticks. Sometimes it works.
posted by chavenet at 4:23 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]

I have this problem, as well. In my workplace, we have an organizational intranet with everyone's name, job title, email address, phone extension – and, crucially, their headshot. It's super helpful. Maybe you can persuade HR to create such a directory for your workplace.
posted by akk2014 at 4:52 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Intranet has names, no photos (it can be put, but most people, including myself, haven't bothered). And even if the headshots are there, how might I remember in the moment? Another complicating factor is that all the people I meet at work are not internal employees - I meet several outsiders as well. Memory is a sieve in both situations :/
posted by Nieshka at 5:09 AM on May 18

Some people seem to have an innate talent for this, so there’s no point comparing yourself to them, just track your own progress. I knew a lawyer with this problem who upon meeting someone used the mnemonic trick of assigning them to a particular playing card mentally. All I generally have to do is repeat their name: “Priyanka, nice to meet you Priyanka.” That will let me remember them until I can write them down somewhere with a little context, which cements it.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:14 AM on May 18

If you're willing to come off as weird, you can tell them about your face blindness and ask them to remind you of their names every time. This DOES require you to find a way to connect their name to their project. I've found people to be pretty cool with this but it is kinda disruptive because they ask about it rather than focus on work stuff.

I also find I'm a lot better at recognizing people by voice and gait. If you consciously focus on those things rather than ineffectually trying to remember their faces, does it help?

Are you able to use any context clues to better guess who someone is? Like, company X usually sends someone over on Tuesdays, or that guy likes to talk to that other person a lot, or that person spends as much time as possible in the cafeteria?
posted by metasarah at 5:33 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Maybe start connecting with everyone on LinkedIn?

I also struggle with remembering names - part of my adhd, I believe. You're not alone.
posted by rebent at 5:36 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]

I am like you. One thing I do is get people’s names again at the end of first conversations, explaining that it’s only my hope of remembering them because I’m awful at names. Not remembering someone’s name when you meet them again is insulting because they think it means they’re unimportant to you — that you remember other people’s names and not theirs. If you have explicitly told them that you’re globally awful at names the first time you met them, then they’ll be less likely to take it personally if you do forget in future. And of course getting the name twice does make me a little more likely to actually remember.
posted by LizardBreath at 5:37 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Mostly ignore it, and when awkward moments arise just apologize and say "I'm so sorry, I struggle with prosopagnosia." And if they give you a blank look quickly say "face blindness."

Trotting out the $5 word for it will smooth over 99% of the small population of people who would take personal offense at a misremembered name.

If you can't dazzle them with charisma, blind them with science.
posted by phunniemee at 5:40 AM on May 18 [15 favorites]

It might be helpful to do what you can to build a mental model of your workplace structure. If your org uses the Microsoft Office suite, Microsoft Teams has a built in org chart (at least from the perspective who is managing whom). If you were assigned a colleague to help with your onboarding process, you might consider asking said colleague about the rundown on which teams are working in the office... and who is working on which team.

Consider connecting with new colleagues on Linked In. (Get an email from some one? -> connect... colleagues invited to your team's meeting-> connect).

I've found it easiest coming clean with folks that I'm terrible with associating names with faces.

The good news is that the start of the new job is always "the worst" for this kind of thing. Eventually your brain will be less overwhelmed by the process of starting a new position, the office layout, the new commute, etc, giving it more computation power for the people ID task. And assuming your brain does recognize people eventually, at some point, you will just have to learn the names of the new folks.

You might find Oliver Sach's books (and personal experiences), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Minds Eye, of interest.
posted by oceano at 5:44 AM on May 18

You've just described me: no recall for names OR faces, along with astonishingly poor ability to connect what faces and names I do eventually remember. This is a disability - sure, it's an extremely trivial one compared to most, but it's still a disability that can erect a barrier in important relationships.

Being open and proactive is my most important coping strategy. I am always telling people, "it's been very nice meeting you, so I apologize for forgetting your name - which I'm going to do in about 3 minutes. Sorry. I am pathologically unable to remember names or faces till I've talked to someone multiple times." It doesn't mean I don't want to. Honest."

This also enables me to take advantage of technology: for instance, getting a photo and keeping it in my phone in that person's contact info. Most people are happy to help me with this. For classes I'll take a few moments for a class photo in front of the blackboard, with each person's name written above him or her. Then I tell them, "we've all got homework. Yours is chapters 1-3. Mine is studying that picture."

Most people are very understanding once I've explained it.
posted by wjm at 5:45 AM on May 18 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Last round of threadsitting, I promise.
It gets worse.
I don't remember senior
internal functionaries as well. And they, too, remember me often! I work in a highly visible team and this sort of name recognition (mine, by them) is deeply coveted. You can imagine how awful it looks when I can't remember superbosses and supersuperbosses!!! Argh!!! What do I do for those cases?
Sorry, stepping back now. Today has been worse than usual for this.
posted by Nieshka at 5:47 AM on May 18

I believe the "privileged white male" approach to this is to call anyone lower than you "champ", anyone on your level "buddy" and anyone higher up than you "boss"....or choose your words to the equivalent. Probably stressing less about it will help - I find my panicky brain is even worse at memory recall. Find a short apology you're comfy with "sorry, I'm particularly dreadful with names and faces" and move on. If you're forgetting the same group of Important People all the time, try to get photos of them (social media) and test yourself regularly/beforehand.
posted by london explorer girl at 6:03 AM on May 18

If your "male dominated industry" is tech, a self-depreciating (but humorous) way to explain the issue is that you have a "poor facial recognition detection algorithm."

Before you go to any meetings...make sure you have an easy-to-reference list of names of the others on the invite list.

Consider carrying around a small notebook (or use your phone) to make notes about who you met and when.

Re your latest update, study your org charts... are any of the VIPS on your company's website? Remember, folks seriously judging you by this issue (after an explanation) reflect badly on them not you. I would also advise you to try to stay as calm and non-flustered as you can in these situations. Easier said than done, I know, but if you make it a non issue, then the conversation can quickly continue on to other things. Over apologizing for something you cannot help, will focus the conversation on your "error" instead of other things.
posted by oceano at 6:28 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I try to share my problem on first meeting, as suggested above. You might benefit from intentionally working to remember the person on first meeting: write down their name. Say it out loud a bunch of times. Write down some memorable physical features. Make a mnemonic and say it aloud.

There are techniques for this, and whole books about that, that work a little or a lot depending on how much of your life you want to dedicate to this problem.
posted by latkes at 6:32 AM on May 18

I have the same problem.
The following won't work for people senior to you.
I used to be a teacher and I needed to remember my students' names. What worked for me was to be open with them that I have this problem, and then turn it into a game.
When I see them outside of the classroom context, like passing in the corridor, I will point at them and have a stab at their name.
"You're Tom!" (give them a questioning look)
They think it's hilarious and when I do get it right, they seem to feel really validated. It helped me remember their name better than any other technique.
For more formal situations and people who are higher in the hierarchy than me, I just say, "sorry, I have forgotten your name?" in a confident way, maybe showing that I'm slightly exasperated with myself but completely hiding any embarrassment I might be feeling.
I act as if it's the equivalent of momentarily having forgotten what the date is.
posted by Zumbador at 6:32 AM on May 18

I struggle a lot with this problem too. I see that most responses are focusing on the names part, which I guess makes sense because it's far more common, but it also doesn't cause nearly as many issues as the face blindness. In my experience, people don't care or even really notice if you don't remember their name, but not recognizing them in the first place gets a lot of weird looks and awkwardness. It's especially bad if it's someone I know very well but out of context don't recognize them, sometimes even when they talk to me. For example I never recognize any of the next-door neighbours I've chatted with for years if I see them away from their property, or coworkers outside of the office.

The only thing that helps me at all is studying headshots (whether through your company, facebook, linkedin, whatever) but it's nowhere near a solution, especially for unexpected encounters. I tend to just mirror people if they clearly recognize me and hope that the conversation will help my memory (and it often does) but that's also led to some awkwardness if discovered.
posted by randomnity at 6:36 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]

I have a terrible time with names and faces. I not only forget people, I confuse people or even conflate people (give two different people the same slot in my mind).

There are two things I've found that help:

1. When I meet someone, I apologize in a friendly unapologetic way in advance, that names are very hard for me and that I'll likely have to ask them their name again. I do this in a friendly way, and people respond well. I make it clear I like that and am present with them. I just will need to be reminded of their names.

2. I try to identify a visual clue other than their face that I can use to remember them. Two women with blonde hair... how do I remember which is which? Oh, Shelly's hair has a little flip at the bottom. I name that in my mind, and it can help me lock in the identity. You can do the same thing with anything: a wrist watch, shoes, earrings. Some of these only work during a single meeting (people wear different earrings every day), but some will last longer (a detail about a hair cut).

3. yes, I remembered a third thing. Whenever I am in a meeting, when people introduce themselves I write down their names, in the order in which they are seated around the table. Then, whenever people speak, I look at my name chart and associate them with their written name. This helps me a lot, long term, remember people's names.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:36 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]

You can't make your brain brain differently, so

1) Get used to faking it rather than trying to fix it-- your brain is what it is, you have other skills, use those. Fake, avoid, schmooze, and a good go-to if they're talking about a project that you don't get -- "I'm just coming off of three phone calls and I'm getting a bit of project merge, remind me which client this is for?" aka the "I'm just so busy" excuse (it works!)

2) Get an ally (or two) who can help you out in social situations -- people you trust who will just say the person's name gratuitously.

3) "How are things going?" Then connect their life/family/work details to their name
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:41 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Oh -- I say hi to everyone like they are a big deal and like I know them well. People do not mind being gratuitously greeted. Then I follow their lead.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:42 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Finally -- supersenior people are not actually as bothered by this as you might think. They are really used to people sucking up to them and being ungenuine. They usually aren't bothered at all by someone who is polite but treats them like a normal person rather than an OMG boss. If anything, it tends to read to them as confidence and/or the ability to play the game at a very, very high level.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:45 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

If your work context provides / allows for it, I've found that taking screenshots of video meetings and using those as flashcards has helped me a lot. I make 2 copies of the image, leave one blank and then during or immediately after the meeting label the other one up with participants names subtitling their faces. Save both in a folder with a name comprising date, project, team / meeting keywords.

I do sometimes go back to these files to check a name, but it's actually seemed to make things better even without that - and in completely offline cases, too.

Something about the combination of outsourcing the name notation from my head, physically typing it out and separating the act of remembering from an associated social moment seems to have made a difference to the overall problem, in my case.
posted by protorp at 6:52 AM on May 18 [4 favorites]

You've started by making this a priority. Use every memory aid you can find. Always repeat the person's name. Nice to meet you Keith. Oh, sorry, Kevin, thanks for correcting me Kevin. Try hard to look at name badges, because seeing the text, hearing the name, saying the name are all reinforcers. Name badges are so awesome, I wish we we wore them more, along with masks.

Take frequent breaks, and make notes. You almost certainly have a smartphone and can tell the assistant (siri, goog) Kevin from NewCorp, from BigTown, Kevin, again reinforcing the name and details. As soon as possible, make written notes in your contacts file. Treat this like part of your work, which is is, and study, too. I know a few people with amazing memory; and a bunch who worked at it. It's an excellent thing to learn.

Link link, etc. There are a lot of good articles, and your library will have books on improving memory.

In my keep app, I have a note with names of neighbors because it's awkward to not know after we've been neighbors for over a year. i review the list when I have Keep open for something else.
posted by theora55 at 7:19 AM on May 18 [4 favorites]

Memorizing names and faces.
posted by latkes at 7:22 AM on May 18

I also have pretty significant un-diagnosted face-blindness and am terrible at names but very good at voices. I will be reading the other comments here with interest.

"It's good to see you" is a really safe choice when greeting someone. I'm slowly learning to just explicitly tell people what they should expect from me. It has always gone well so far. But, I'm also in a weird field full of non-neurotypical people.
posted by eotvos at 7:48 AM on May 18

Can you recognize people that you "know"? If so, it might be worth considering which characteristics of people your brain finds most distinctive (e.g. hair, bag, shoes, context).

Maybe you have a Soccer Steve, on the sales team, with sandy colored hair, who plays soccer on Saturdays.
posted by oceano at 7:50 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I wrote a book on memory techniques. I got interested in the subject because I'm naturally horrible at remembering things, and I need to lean on every technique I can find!

Here's what I do:

• When I meet somebody, before they introduce themselves, I try to guess their name. Obviously I am probably going to be wrong, but there is evidence that correcting a wrong answer results in better memory retention than starting from scratch.

• I repeat a name as soon as somebody says it. If they tell me their name is Susan, I immediately say, "Susan? It's nice to meet you, Susan." It helps avoid the situation where I realize I've forgotten their name thirty seconds after shaking hands.

• I pick some noticable feature of their face, and try to come up with a crazy image that links it with their name. If I meet somebody with big ears named "Charlie," I picture Charlie Brown climbing on their ears.

• Afterwards, I write down what I remember about them. Amazingly, Bill Clinton used to do this right in front of people-- in the middle of a conversation, he'd write down their name and personal details on an index card. I guess if you have enough charisma, it seems flattering rather than weird. But I don't have that level of charisma.

• All of the above helps in the short term. But in the long term, no matter how many techniques I use, I'm going to eventually forget their faces thanks to the curve of forgetting. So I use spaced repetition. Search the app store of your choice for "spaced repetition" and download an app that will let you make flashcards. I use Anki. If I can possibly get a photo of the people I've met, I'll load it into Anki and use it to quiz myself on names and faces. Getting the photo from the name is the easy part, thanks to Google and Facebook. The hard part is remembering the name long enough to look up a photo. If you meet people in a business setting, always ask for their business cards, as a written record of the people you've met. You can also look at attendee lists for meetings you've been to.

The flashcard thing sounds weird to most people, and I was pretty self-conscious about it at first. But it has had a huge impact on my ability to recognize names and (in turn) on my self-confidence in social situations. If you truly have clinical prosopagnosia, I don't think it will help. But if (like me), you're neurotypical but really bad at remembering names and faces, spaced repetition is like magic. It will eventually hammer information into your brain.
posted by yankeefog at 7:53 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]

So my problem is that I apparently only have one, maybe two, slots for people with the same name. If the name is new to me, or just unusual, no problem. If it's yet another Matt, Justin, Chris or Kristin, well...I will struggle.

I share that in case that is part of your issue too.

What I do is openly write names down on a handy slip of paper while saying "I'm terrible with names if I don't write them down!" Or ask for a business card if it's that kind of function. Most people appreciate you taking the effort. You have to not lose that note though. You might snap a pic of it with your phone as backup.

Soo many people have this problem, it's not a failure. Our brains aren't set up to meet and remember tons of names and faces. The people who can are exceptions.
posted by emjaybee at 7:56 AM on May 18

I'd suggest taking snapshots for flashcards, if you can manage it. I'm disabled now and not working, but at my last job I was candid about my prosopagnosia - which, like others here, I believe is related to my ADD - and asked my co-workers and our external committee members if I could take a snapshot of each of them to make flashcards to learn their names. People were gracious and accommodating, and it really helped my overall function in the job to offload the stress and worry of being so completely terrible at that so I could focus on my tasks.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:04 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

In addition to the other good advice, i just want to echo the ones about getting a buddy and using what you already have the skill/talent to remember. The note-taking too. To expand:

1. Identify work buddies and allies that can help cue you in work events. This will still leave out a gap for other opportunistic meetings but that's okay, you'll have other strategies. Since you're of equal stature these are your buddies but honestly busier and wealthier people tend to have assistants to provide them this function.

2. Since you say you have great recall with voices and work detail, work those in your personal files of each person. The face blindness is a genuine handicap but as well as trying to get a photo as much as possible maybe try to brush up your descriptive language skills as you prep your note for each person. There's an inevitable musicality to it once you take such flourishes, it might actually perk up your internal ears so to speak.

3. There's really no way around it, manually preparing notes seems like your long-term adaptive measure. The good news is there are decent speech-to-text apps like Otter.ai that you can use as a voice note and the auto transcription cuts down on your prep time. I can see two pluses here: 1. You could even have the other person leave a short message in addition; 2. This may play very well to your strength with audio recall -- even if you can't get them to leave a message, there's enough emotional association in your own voice it would help a lot when you replay as you clean up the transcription.
posted by cendawanita at 8:54 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]

I suffer similarly, and recommend:

1) keep a notebook handy and write their name down and any info just after you meet them. This gives you another form of input besides just hearing their name.

2) If their name is at all unusual or has multiple spellings, ask how they spell their name. For me, it really helps connect a person to their name if I can spell it (and visually see it). "Is that Sara with or without an H?"

3) look them up on LinkedIn just after meeting them. Connect if you haven't already. Or just review their profile to keep them fresh on your mind.
posted by hydra77 at 8:55 AM on May 18

Another face blind person here! Here's what I do:

1. Draw their picture and write their name (they'll ask me why and this is when I explain that I'm face blind). You do not need to be good at art.

2. Write down anything that you can use to ID them, especially something repetitive like a phone cover or a certain type of shoe.

3. Try to examine features like hair, teeth, skin tone, moles or skin tags. You may have to be critical here to find something different. Any verbal flourishes?

4. Look at the way they walk if you can. Are they duck footed? Pigeon toed? Do they walk ball to heel? Do they walk into a room with a lot of confidence? I know someone who is duck footed but stands on the sides of their feet with their legs all the way back for example.

5. Find a trusted person if you're too embarrassed about forgetting names and ask that person.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:04 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I have this problem and not because I think I’m superior at all it’s a legit problem.

Strategies I use:
1. Introduce a friend / spouse / colleague first to get them to say their name
2. Ask how they spell their name (backfires if it’s something like “Jim”
3. Keep conversations light until the context of how you met comes to you. “How has your week been? Crazy weather huh?”

I think when I remember someone’s name and background is when they have taken it personally and then it’s engrained in my mind. Sometimes it’s just good to say you are not the best at remembering people, it’s been a long day, and apologize.
posted by hillabeans at 4:20 PM on May 18

I am friendly when I meet new people, will listen with attention and patience during conversations [...]
I am good with remembering phone voices

When you meet someone in person, have you tried looking away from them for a short time as they speak? They're talking, you're clearly interested in what they're saying and attentively listening... and also at some point you're adjusting a troublesome lanyard or bracelet clasp (not a wristwatch), or jotting down a recommendation they've made as they repeat that information, or turning your body slightly so that you're both surveying the crowd (or the art, or the landscape), all while continuing the conversation. If you remember voices (and perhaps speech patterns?) well, work to this strength.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:32 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I have this. I don't think it's a general memory issue because I have a really good memory for other things.
I think we're just wired this way.
posted by signal at 7:48 PM on May 18

Recent NY Times article might help!
Faces Are Important. But I Can’t Recognize Them.
What does it mean to live with prosopagnosia?
An animator discloses the different ways he lives his
life because he can’t recognize faces.

posted by Dansaman at 8:44 PM on May 19

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