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Why You Forget People’s Names (and 5 Things You Can Do About It)

Morag Barrett, June 18, 2018

When I was growing up I remember that when my dad called me it often sounded like “Lucy-Bella-Emma-Morag.” This hyphenated stumbling over my name often happened when he was distracted. As a point of clarification, Lucy was my mum, and Bella was our dog, a cocker spaniel, and Emma, well that was his nickname for me (after Emma Peel from The Avengers – go figure).
I’d assumed his forgetfulness was a symptom of being “old.” However, as the mother of three teenage boys, and not yet ready to describe myself as “old” I find myself falling into the same pattern, much to the amusement (or frustration) of my sons. To be clear, the three of them can, at a glance be mistaken for each other, hence I find myself circling through the “James-Matthew-Christopher” combo on a regular basis.
My dad and I aren’t alone in experiencing the name confusion and misnaming others. It happens to us all. 
Research conducted by Duke University seems to have solved the ‘why.’ It certainly isn’t because we do it on purpose, or that we don’t care about the person. In fact, it’s because we care that names can get confused. 
The research showed that we store names in groups of associated people who we like, or know. Interestingly the research showed this included the family pooch, but not so much the family cat.
If we store names in one part of our brain, it turns out that we store the information and facts about people in a completely different area. One that is more readily accessible. 
It’s as if names are stored at the back of the knick-knack draw in the kitchen, where a bit of rummaging is required to find what you need, whereas information about a person is in the coat closet by the front door, ready for a quick ‘grab and go.’ 
This is why I remember you like motorsports, have an interest in “my little ponies” or raise llamas for fun, but for the life of me, can’t recall who you are.
I meet thousands of people each year, as a keynote speaker at conferences, or through the leadership program events that I facilitate. I’ve developed a knack for learning names in the moment. However, remembering all those names when I meet someone a few weeks or months later, especially if that meeting is out of context; at the grocery store in casual clothes instead of the business suit; or heaven help us, at the neighborhood swimming pool; let alone in another city while on a business trip, then it becomes more challenging.
How To Avoid Forgetting Names

  1. Wear your name badge, high and prominently! And a side plea to conference organizers, please print the name in LARGE print so I don’t need to get my reading glasses out.
  2. Go first – Say your name, introduce yourself to others in the group you may not recognize and save the person who recognizes you but can’t for the life of them remember your name.  “Hi, I’m Morag Barrett. I was the keynote speaker at [insert conference name or event].”
  3. Have a wing man or woman. When I am at an event with a colleague we have an agreement if we don’t introduce someone immediately it is the signal that we have forgotten their name. My colleague will then introduce themselves, and then ask how they know me. As a result, the person we are meeting will share their name and provide context on how we first met. An awkward moment is avoided.
  4. Be honest and ask! Own your forgetfulness and say something like “My apologies, I know we have met, please remind me of your name” or “I keep wanting to call you Sarah, but I know that’s not right.”
  5. Ask others. It’s easy enough to ask someone else in the room if they know the person you recognize. That way you can walk up confidently and say hello having been reminded of their name.

 There you go, five things to do the next time you forget someone’s name. And if someone forgets your name, try not to take it too personally, none of us has a perfect memory!

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