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Why Do You Forget People's Names?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 15 Dec 2023

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People at a seminar
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That one guy…what’s his name? That lady…what’s her face? I’m so bad with names.

Hasn’t everyone who’s ever lived said those things at some point in their lives?

Here’s what’s weird. A name is arguably the most important thing about a person. You went on a date with that girl, but you don’t even know her name? How scandalous! In ancient cultures, naming was a ritual with deep significance. Are we so self-absorbed and socially obtuse in today’s world that we can’t be bothered to learn another human’s name? Or, despite our best efforts, is it really that hard for our brains?

We’re breaking down why you forget people’s names so easily and — most importantly — what you can do to remember names better.

Why We Forget People's Names

Lack of Context and Meaning

Theory #1: Names don’t mean anything to us. Like, in the most literal sense possible, they don’t mean anything.

June the month means the 6th month, a time of summer vacations and weddings and school getting out. June the name is really just a name. It doesn’t signify anything about personality, interests, or appearance.

Compare it with a nickname or title someone has earned. Blackbeard the pirate truly had a black beard (down to his waist, allegedly). Spider-Man is a man who does whatever a spider can.

But in our waking, day-to-day lives, names are pretty random. In today’s transient, multicultural world, your name and your ethnicity don’t have to match. Unlike in the past, your surname doesn’t need anything to do with your profession or where your family is from. As a result, we struggle to remember to new people’s names.

The way to fix it? Attach some contextual meaning, similar to meaning a mnemonic device. It’s easily to forget “Dan,” but harder to forget “Doctor Dan” or “Database Dan” or “Daring Dan the Delivery Man.” By the way, you don’t need to say your memory clue out loud. Repeat it silently in your head whenever you see the person, and their name will stick!

Our Memories Care More About People Than Faces

Theory #2: We don’t remember everything equally, and our brains prioritize facts about a person over their faces.

A study of facial recognition made an interesting finding: Biographical information was the most helpful way to remember a person’s name when their face was familiar. In the study, participants saw photographs of celebrities. If the participant said, “Oh, that face is familiar” but couldn’t place the name, they were likely to remember the name once the researcher shared “She’s an actress who stared in such-and-such movie” or whatever it was.

But, interestingly, if participants already knew this and still couldn’t remember the name, learning more biographical details didn’t help. If a participant said, “Oh, he’s a singer but I don’t know his name,” they were unlikely to recall the name even with more details.

What does it mean? A person’s name seems to be tied to important facts about them. If we can remember those facts, the name is there too — but, if the name is truly not stored with the facts, then a piling on of new information won’t help.

So, when you meet someone for the first time, asking questions about their occupation, hometown, or hobbies will help you associate their name with those facts. It’s also why when you re-introduce yourself to a person you haven’t met in a long time, it’s helpful to quickly add how you know them — “We met at the conference two years ago” — to save them the embarrassment of trying to remember you.

We Don't Need Names To Interact

Theory #3:  You simply don’t use another person’s name often enough.

Tell me I’m not the only one who does this. I’ll be in line at a store or at a park and enjoy a cordial conversation about the weather with a complete stranger, never once asking their name. We don’t need it!

When our extended family goes out to dinner, my aunt always addresses the waiter by name, which I think is weird. Just because they’re wearing a name tag doesn’t mean you have to use it. Just say, “excuse me” or “pardon me” or hold up your empty glass and make eye contact from across the restaurant like a normal person.

Of course, if your goal is to remember someone’s name, using it more often does help. It becomes a primary component of the interaction. If you’ve ever been to a business seminar, you’ve probably heard some advice like “say the person’s name three times in the first conversation.” It make you come across a bit like a door-to-door salesman, but it does help elevate the name in your memory.

What To Say When You Forget Someone's Name

So now we get to the crux of the issue. Understanding why you can’t remember people’s names is interesting in an academic sense, but what do you know when you forget someone’s name while you’re talking to them?

Here’s a hack — introduce them to someone else. “This is my wife. Have you guys met?” Almost certainly, the person will reach out their hand and say, “Hi, I’m ____.” Problem solved.

Unless you don’t have a significant other handy and you’re left floundering for a name all on your lonesome. In that case, here are some moves you can play.

  • Just be honest. We’ve all forgotten someone’s name before. It’s not as awkward as you fear. Just lead off with a polite, “Remind me of your name.” Best to get it out of the way before you’re too deep into conversation.
  • Make it about you. No one likes to feel forgotten, so assure them that you’re the one with the problem. “I’m so sorry, I’m terrible with names. Can you remind me of yours?” Then, if you can do this sincerely, immediately follow up with some confidence that you do remember them. “Derek! Of course! I remember we talked after the seminar last month. Good to see you again.”
  • Start with another detail you remember. This is similar to the previous advice. Lead off with a reassurance that you haven’t forgotten the person, just their name. “I talked to you after the business seminar last month. I remember you’re from Tampa, but I am blanking on your name.” Most people will feel touched that you remember the conversation you had and they will be more forgiving about your leaky memory for names.

How To Improve Your Name Memory

In addition to mnemonic devices, learning biographical details, and simply using a person’s name more often, it’s also helpful to intentionally train your brain. When you meet someone new, make a conscious effort to attach their name to something in the conversation. If I’m an an event where I’m meeting many people at once, I’ll even jot down their names on a piece of paper or (this is more discreet) a note on my phone. This helps pull it forward in my mind.

Studying can be useful, too. I know a pastor who, when he was hired at a new congregation, spent a week or two studying all the names in the church directory, like memorizing a vocabulary list. This solved the first problem — names are often random. When he met someone, the name wasn’t random. He could associate it with some information he’d already learned.

Similarly, I know teachers who will carefully study their class rosters before the first day of school, even if there aren’t any pictures attached. Just having a list of names in your brain already can help cement associations more quickly.

If you don’t have a preset list but you want to be better at remembering names, try reading baby name lists online or credit lists at the end of a movie. It sounds odd, but when you signal to your brain that names are important, it will help with future name recall.

On the Flipside: Help People Out

If you sympathize with the embarrassment of forgetting someone’s name, make it easier on your colleagues and neighbors by preemptively reminding them of your name.

  • “Hey, I’m Dave. Remember me from the seminar?”
  • “I know there were a lot of people at the seminar. I’m Dave, in case all the names blurred together.”
  • “Dave’s here! The seminar can start.”

Or, do the sensible thing, and give everyone at the seminar a name tag.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He's named after his grandpa. You can also think of Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy John's the sandwich place.

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