Say Your Name
June 3, 2004 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Suppose that you're at a party, or wandering down the street in a small town, or in your local coffee shop, and you run across someone you've briefly met before several months ago, but whose name you don't remember. However, he or she remembers yours, and greets you effusively. In this circumstance you'd rather not say, "You'll have to forgive me, but even though you apparently remember me quite well, I don't have a clue what your name is." Is there a way to get the person to say his or her first name to you without you admitting to him or her that you've forgotten it? Assume that there are no other people involved in your conversation, that you have fifteen minutes to get their name from them, and that you have a reasonable ability to direct the conversation topic to whatever subject you wish.
posted by Prospero to Human Relations (31 answers total)
Here's what I do. I say that we have to get in touch, and I write my contact info and my first name on a piece of paper, and give it over, and then hand the other person a paper and a pen. They will almost always write their name down the same way you did. Of course, you have to give them your phone number to do it, but I guess you could fake it, or just give an email address or something.
posted by bingo at 10:12 AM on June 3, 2004

Their respect for you gradually diminishes during the passing time it takes you figuring out their name.
Upon greeting, what could be more insulting than one not even asking your first name. Especially when you have been introduced before.

Are you writing a book or did you flub a potential date?
posted by thomcatspike at 10:19 AM on June 3, 2004

"Hey what was your last name again?" "Buttcakes" "I thought so, I went to school with a Buttcakes at 'Local High School', and he had your first name, are you guys related?"

You'll get either:

"No" or "No I'm the only Jason Buttcakes I know!"

If it's the first answer you have to go "Really? Because he looks a lot like you? It's weird he had the exact same first name as you?"

Ok a lot of times this will freak them out and they'll emphatically say "No" and drop their first name in there. Just keep doing it till they drop their first name. I have used it and it does work. Even if they think you're weird at first turn it into a joke and all will be well.

Of course I always profusely repeat my name to people when they don't know me, or know me well. I try to minimize the Seinfeldian embarrassment in this world.
posted by geoff. at 10:22 AM on June 3, 2004

You'll have to forgive me, but even though you apparently remember me quite well, I don't have a clue what your name is."
That's being honest, first impression.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:23 AM on June 3, 2004

I just say, "Sorry, I'm terrible with names, what is yours, again?" It's the truth so...

The worse situation is when you meet someone who swears you know them and they know all about you and you honestly haven't a clue who they are, even after they go into great detail. This happened to me once. A girl insisted we were good friends in highschool. She talked about my parents (apparently she'd been to my house several times), my sister, my dogs, my swimming pool... I swear I'd never seen her before in my life and her name registered not at all. I asked other highschool friends and they all knew who she was. Freaked me right out.
posted by dobbs at 10:23 AM on June 3, 2004

Dear Mary answered this question in the spectator magazine a couple of months ago, alas I can't remember what her answer was so you'll have to register and go through her old answers if you want it (Under "Your problems solved"). Might be worthwhile - I find her very entertaining.
posted by biffa at 10:28 AM on June 3, 2004

I always just fess up to a lousy memory, because anybody who actually knows me knows that's completely true. But...

You could try the roundabout route. Get them to talk about where you last saw each other, which might trigger something in your memory.

Or try servile flattery. Deny knowing them completely, almost emphatically, several times. When they finally reveal their name, be amazed at the incredibly positive change in their appearance. They've improved so much that you couldn't possibly have recognized them. Covers over any possible hurt feelings. Insincere as hell, but really, if you didn't care enough to remember their name, what does it matter?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2004

Having learned from experience. I usually just say something like: "Forgive me, but what's your name again?"

I realized this was more than acceptable after it happened to me. I wasn't offended in the least. And I'd much rather reintroduce myself than to slog through a conversation where it's obvious that the other person doesn't remember me clearly.

And really, it's quite obvious. No matter how slick you try to be about it, chances are the other person will realize what's up and think a bit less of you for it.
posted by aladfar at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2004

Dobbs, the same thing happened to me. Apparently she was in my carpool to & from high school for a year. Yes, it was a big car (a suburban) but you'd think I would remember a girl I'd spent 40 minutes a day with, 5 days a week.

I'm with everyone who says honesty from the start is the best policy... "sorry, I'm so bad with names...what is yours again?"

I am horrible with names. In college, I'd meet a guy in a bar and be hooking up with him later and COMPLETELY forget his name. Talk about having to scramble to figure out how to ask that!!! Embarassing. I don't think I ever did it smoothly, but the guys never seemed to really care. ;)
posted by aacheson at 10:46 AM on June 3, 2004

I always introduce them to a friend. "I'd like you to meet Mike." Then, Mike says "Nice to meet you. Didn't catch your name?"

But that only works if you've got an accomplice. I'm not so good with these situations myself. The few times I've worked up the nerve to own up and ask a forgotten name, there's been no ill will about it. Honesty works.
posted by Succa at 10:50 AM on June 3, 2004

Response by poster: Are you writing a book or did you flub a potential date?

Actually, I've run into this most often with former students. I'd have as many as a hundred of them in a given year, all of whom remembered who I was, and sometimes had visibly hurt feelings when I failed to remember who they were in return. I was having a discussion about this subject with a friend recently, and we thought that the question as phrased in the initial post was, as far as we could tell, unanswerable. (Though I later thought that one solution is to bring up the subject of identification, show your horrible driver's license photo to the person, and get the person to show his or hers in return.)

That's being honest, first impression.

Well, yes, but is it playfully ingenious? I should say that I intended the question to be more of a thought experiment than a point of etiquette.
posted by Prospero at 10:57 AM on June 3, 2004

Actually, you probably should have mentioned the teacher/student thing up front. That's a totally different situation, to me, than meeting someone in a social setting, whom you met before in some social setting. Why? Because in the social situation you're peers, you are both expected to meet and remember a similar number of people. As a teacher (I taught for a while) you might have had contact with hundreds or THOUSANDS of people in the last few years, wheras the other party only had a 20 professors or so.

Also, most of the tricks mentioned above will not work well for student/teacher name flubs. Are you really going to ask for a students phone number? Or swap photo IDs and look at them?

Another difficulty here is, what if the person doesn't even identify themselves as a student? Although it may be obvious by something like age difference (it wasn't in my case. I was about the median age of my students).

It happened to me all the time. I'd run into a student at a coffee place or grocery store or something. I'd usually realize quickly that they were a student of mine. I'd avoid the name problem, just ask them how classes were going, etc, and that would be it. I've got to be going, etc.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:37 AM on June 3, 2004

thought experiment
My first answer came from thoughts remedying the experience. The second comment was backed by etiquette from parts of your own question.

...ever meet someone then make it almost to home plate? Say almost because you forgot the name given to you earlier & you try ingeniously finding it out. Only for it to back fire on you when it was outed. Talk about a quicker way being left alone during sex than saying out loud a known "ex."

(Though I later thought that one solution is to bring up the subject of identification, show your horrible driver's license photo to the person, and get the person to show his or hers in return.)
What if they don't drive or just embarrassed of their photo? Not all states/countries driver's license did or do have photo's on them too.
posted by thomcatspike at 11:43 AM on June 3, 2004

I also go with honesty, because I don't find it the least bit offensive when someone doesn't remember my name. But that is probably just relief on my part given how many other people's names I've forgotten over the years - I'm always glad to find other people suffering from the same personal flaw... and I always try to slip my name in if there's any chance they're struggling to remember it.

The worst is definitely when you just don't recognize someone at all, and have to pretend to recall something, after they give you all these details (oh, oh, yeah, right I think I do remember that evening...). I'm getting braver as I get older to just admit, sorry I really don't have any memories of that, but I still feel bad.

student/teacher is a funny relationship, because although it's perfectly obvious that a teacher can't be expected to remember all their students, students sometimes identify quite strongly with a teacher, or think of them as an important influence, and especially if they're still young and optimistic about people etc, will be quite disappointed. As a grad student I find I can even feel annoyed if a professor doesn't remember a paper I wrote, let alone who I am, despite knowing these guys have hundreds of students, and unless I'm working directly with the person, there's no reason I'd be noticeable in the crowd.

I've only been teaching for a couple semesters and my classes are all small, seminar style deals, but I'm making a special effort to get everyone's names. Funny thing about that is I sometimes start typecasting between the classes (oh, this guy bob is like a new version of jason from last semester...) - I mean, I get over it once I get to know the new group, but my diligence in getting the names straight sort of gives me all this leftover and now useless information - useless until I run into one of them on the street, I guess...
posted by mdn at 11:54 AM on June 3, 2004

Best to just ask. It shows interest in the other person, not failure to remember them. Go by the principle that names are just a social convention and you could have been thinking of them fondly without knowing theirs.
posted by inksyndicate at 1:00 PM on June 3, 2004

Y'all think you have problems. I occasionally draw a blank with people who I have known for YEARS.

When I meet people lots of times I warn them in advance about my difficulty with names. Oddly enough that seems to help.
posted by konolia at 1:24 PM on June 3, 2004

Oh, but I guess we are ignoring the main question, which is a challenge to think of a way to disclose the name.

You could find a magic trick in which the person has to first spell their name using scrabble tiles.

One handy trick is to ask, "Which spelling of your name do you use, anyway?" and gamble that it has two spellings. Most do, these days.
posted by inksyndicate at 1:28 PM on June 3, 2004

If you can demonstrate that you remember them as a person-- perhaps by recounting things you you might have discussed or experienced together-- then forgetting their name is just a detail, a glitch in your memory, and easily forgivable
posted by 4easypayments at 1:41 PM on June 3, 2004

which is a challenge
Challenging, the ease or playfully ingenious?

"Which spelling of your name do you use, anyway?"
That's Bob with two b's...teasing ya.
posted by thomcatspike at 1:48 PM on June 3, 2004

Ask for their email address and hope it's something like "" and not ""
posted by bondcliff at 1:59 PM on June 3, 2004

"Heeey, I know you! How're ya doing? It's been quite some time, hasn't it, eh, Dr. John?"

"Oh, uh, yeah, yeah, it has. Say, got any Scrabble tiles? Wanna see a magic trick?"

I can't remember names, and even though I'm overly sensitive and tend to get slightly offended if my name is forgotten, I say go for honesty. I once ran into an old high school teacher of mine. She didn't acknowledge not remembering me by keeping the conversation away from her life since I'd seen her (because she didn't know when exactly that was), and kept me talking about what I was doing that summer. Which sucked, because I had wanted to find out what she was up to, not prattle on about scuba diving.

Personally, I do what 4easypayments recommends. I recall specific aspects of our last encounter, and confess to forgetting the name itself. People understand.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 1:59 PM on June 3, 2004

This is my solution to the problem at hand. you say "you know every year when I fisrt meet my new students I work out some little device for remembering thier names. And when you were in my class I used to think (here you make up some thing about thier person (POSITIVE thing - lets say great smile!)) for you and thats how I remembered your name. But now I just can't remember at all. funny isn't it? I remember the device I used to remember your name but not your name. I certainly am getting old!"

then student says " erm... uhm... My name is Bob."

you say of course now it fits. I used to think theres 'old great smile' I wish I had a winning smile like that I'd like to rob bob's smile. ah Bob it is!'

student slowly backs away "ok, great seeing you again...heh. bye."

you "see you soon Smiling Bob!. Don't let anyone rob you of that smile, Bob!"

there you go. problem solved.
posted by darkpony at 2:01 PM on June 3, 2004

I always introduce them to a friend. "I'd like you to meet Mike." Then, Mike says "Nice to meet you. Didn't catch your name?"

I tried something like this once, but the person pointed to me and said to my accomplice, "he knows!" And then I sat there looking like an idiot. And she never spoke to me again.

One handy trick is to ask, "Which spelling of your name do you use, anyway?" and gamble that it has two spellings. Most do, these days.

Although they'll probably just say "with an 'i'" or something similarly vague.
posted by jragon at 2:01 PM on June 3, 2004

Ah, I run into this situation all the time. I have a terrible memory. And I've been with other people who've been in the midst of the horrible "I don't remember your name" dilemma and been unable to help them.

This is a perfect opportunity to recycle a little gem from a weblog entry from last January (abridged for this forum). I love this story:

My best friend, Paul, and I are heading to see The Decemberists. We have time before dinner, so we stop at Powell's where I browse contentedly. Paul bumps into a woman he knows and begins to chat with her while I continue to look through the science fiction section. When I return to them, he introduces me: "This is my friend, J.D."

I wait for him to introduce her, but he seems to have forgotten, so I say, "And this is..."

"Exactly," Paul says. But no more.

I shake the woman's hand and say, "Nice to meet you, Exactly." I figure that Paul's just being goofy. (He's often goofy.)

The conversation ends abruptly. The woman is walking in the same direction that we need to go, so I figure we'll just walk with her, but she quickens her pace, leaving us behind. I am puzzled.

"Oh my god," Paul says. "I can't believe you didn't pick up on my hint. I once dated her for a couple of weeks, but I just couldn't remember her name. Oh god."

I feel bad, but not nearly as bad as Paul feels!

We go out to Indian food. We watch The Decemberists play a gig. We have a nice chat on our drive back to Canby.

When we get home, Paul and I spend some time at the computer, listening to songs by The Decemberists, and looking up information about the group.

Later, as I walk through the house, turning off the lights. I pass Paul, who is already spread out on the couch. "J.D.," he says.

"What, Paul?"

"I remember now: Ione. Her name is Ione."

Poor Paul...
posted by jdroth at 2:38 PM on June 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

You could try "What name are you going to put on your tombstone". That should work and it is easy to work into the conversation.
posted by mss at 3:18 PM on June 3, 2004

That's Bob with two b's

posted by bob sarabia at 6:02 PM on June 3, 2004

Hell, who needs names? If they matter so little that you forgot about them, you'll forget them again before you reach the corner. How often do people use names in conversation (outside of soap operas) anyway? I find "you" covers it all.

"Hey, how are you doing?".

"It is good to see you too, yeh"

"Not much. Same old same old shit. Anyway, I gotta run, you know what it's like. Bye now."

To answer the question though, get them to put their number into your phone. They'll type their name. Or ask them to spell it while you type. If they say, "er, Lisa", say, "yeh, but s or z?" or "don't laugh. I knew a girl once who spelt jessica with one s, and she used to get so mad when it was done wrong, I'm obsessive about checking now. Yes! one s! I know, hee!".

If they then go "but we dated for six months!" then you're a shit, sorry.
posted by bonaldi at 6:47 PM on June 3, 2004

4easypayments nails it. Tell them what you don't remember, reassure them with what you do remember, and tell the truth, because a bit of small awkwardness is much better than big awkwardness.
posted by namespan at 8:53 PM on June 3, 2004

I hate having to come up with words to explain that I know and remember the person but that the name is momentarily escaping me. So I usually rely on facial expressions.

Look wide eyed and happy to see them, but at the same time blink and shake your head a bit as if clearing cobwebs, and make puzzled, gasping-fish motions with your mouth.

It seems to convey the surprise of seeing someone out of context, which easily blanks names from my mind. Most people will watch only about a half-second of this before happily coming to the rescue and offering their name.
posted by Tubes at 9:36 PM on June 3, 2004

Late to the party but I'll add my two cents anyway, as this happens to me all the time. As with a number of posters above, my policy is always to say straight up "sorry, but I'm crap with names and I've forgotten yours." Nobody's been offended yet...

one solution is to bring up the subject of identification
I tried something like this once, a guy I had met but whose name I had forgotten had his student ID card on the table as we were chatting, I grabbed a surreptitious look and said "well, nice chatting with you PETER!", feeling very clever. On later meetings I discovered that he always goes by his middle name. So be warned!

As for a good solution without fessing up, I say go for the memory jog ... try to elicit some info on where you met and friends in common.
posted by nomis at 9:59 PM on June 3, 2004

I also vote for the honest approach. Though one trick you could try is to ask the person if he (or she) has had any interesting nicknames. Chances are he'll either say something that will give you a clue about his real name (and hopefully your memory can do the rest), or he will say "no, just James." If instead he tells you something really weird, like "Bug," you can just use that and pretend to be funny. There is still the chance that the person will simply answer "no," but, hey, it's worth a shot.
posted by epimorph at 11:04 PM on June 3, 2004

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