How to forget people’s names

I know, Dale Carnegie says, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” I’ve read that a number of times over the years and every time my reaction is, “If that’s true, I’m screwed.”

I’ve got a lot of valuable tips for you about how to forget names — a skill I’m extremely good at. But first let me set up some context about anxiety and ADHD and the overwhelming amount of information that comes with meeting people.

My full diagnosis is ADHD and Anxiety with OCD traits. (That means I do OCD stuff but not at a level that screws up my life … much. More on that in some other post.)

A good chunk of my anxiety has to do with people — and the complex, overwhelming emotional landscape that comes with them. The thing is, I love people, so the whole just-stay-home strategy doesn’t work so well for me. I’ve spent the last couple of decades figuring out workaround for the places where my brain plus anxiety are conspiring to make being around people suck.

Remembering names is very high on that list. Here’s why …

What is your face doing?

For whatever reason, my brain is bad at faces. I tested in the 34th percentile for recognizing facial expressions. (This is why in a group of strangers I will always lose at poker.) In any given group of people I’m in the bottom third for understanding what your face means. Actually if it’s a public group of people, there are probably only a few of us who are that bad at reading expressions because the others like us were smart enough to stay home.

Over the years I’ve learned to be good at reading body language to compensate, so much so that at my marketing job now I sometimes teach body language to clients. I also listen carefully to vocal tone and ask a lot of questions. (This includes, with people I know very well, the key question, “What facial expression are you making right now? I can’t tell” or the less formal, “What do your eyebrows mean?”)

I’ve also learned to be good at eye contact, whether or not the face I’m looking at seems meaningful at the time. If you’re wondering, it’s 3.2 seconds for eye contact. Sometimes I count this in my head. Most of the time it’s about the length of a medium in and out breath, so I just hold eye contact while I breathe in and out, then look away.

What’s your name again?

I am super bad at names. This is a combination of the faces thing, ADHD and anxiety, and the fact that people come with a lot of information. When I’m meeting someone for the first time I’m also usually in a setting with a ton of extraneous information, like an office I’ve never been in before, a coffee shop or a conference. My attention is drawn to them, to what they’re saying and what it could mean, to what I’m supposed to be doing, and to everything that’s happening around us.

ADHD brains are better at taking in extraneous information, but often this means we’re missing what’s right in front of us. Plus ADHD brains have problems filtering our working memory. That’s how many things you can keep in your mind at the same time, like remembering what you’re working on today and what you walked into the kitchen to get. Or remembering a person’s name along with what they’re saying to me.

What’s my secret for remembering names? It’s that I don’t. I don’t have some cool tactic or mnemonic that helps. I have never found a way to meet someone, hear their name and retain it.

I used to try really really hard to do all the common recommendations:

  • Repeat their name in your head — this is a great way to miss everything else that’s being said in the next few minutes. If you’ve got any kind of social anxiety, this will probably feel impossible. It’s like you can either remember the name or listen. Advice sites seem to think it’s reasonable to be able to hear what they’re saying and be repeating their name in your head. I have almost never managed this and I’m a pretty smart person. Plus, if you’re meeting multiple people, this will suck hard.
  • See the person’s face in your mind and associate with an mnemonic or manipulate it so it’s memorable — I can’t get out of the gate with this one. I can’t hold their face in my mind.
  • Rhyme the name, exaggerate the name, etc. — These just make me miss the conversation we’re actually having or, when I remember it later, only remember the ridiculous rhyme I came up with rather than anything important about you.

After much experimentation, I realized that I could either try really hard to remember names, or I could listen to you and remember what we talked about. Guess what? I’d rather remember all the fun information about you and get your name later.

I can remember so many things about you ... except your name.

I can remember so many things about you … except your name.


There is one thing that works without fail

I was at a meeting with a new client last week — six people from the client’s office at the meetings along with me and another woman from my office. My co-worker is very good with people and names. Everyone introduced themselves and a few minutes in my co-worker is already using people’s names — like this is a natural thing to do. Like people can just hear six names with faces and remember them.

Meanwhile, I have them written in my notes in the order they’re sitting from me clockwise like this:

  1. Tiana
  2. Jaxon
  3. Ly
  4. Bill
  5. Krysta
  6. Malik

And in my notes I’m using the numbers, not the names, because I’m not remembering the names yet. After an hour my co-worker is smoothly saying things like, “Well Krysta, I want to get back to that point Tiana brought up …”

I’m looking across the table thinking, “Is that Krysta? I’ve been in this meeting with her for an hour, why don’t I know that yet?”

Well, I don’t. And if I run into her in Target tomorrow, I still won’t.

It’s scary to walk around in a world of people whose names I don’t remember and whose faces I don’t understand. But hey, I’m still not staying home.

The one thing that always works for me is to write down names and forget them.

I know you can’t pause after being introduced to someone and write their name down most of the time, so here’s how to do this in the real world:

  1. If you get business cards in a meeting, put them in front of you in the same order that people are sitting so you can quickly look down and associate the card with the person.
  2. If you’re in a group meeting, wait for other people to use a name, then write it down. You can use the clockwise notation if you’re good with positions (i.e. a kinesthetic learner) or if you store information visually you can do it by shirt color or anything you know will stick in your mind.
  3. If you’re in a small group in a non-meeting setting (like a convention) and you didn’t get cards, ask for email addresses. Most people’s names are in their email addresses, and if they aren’t you can usually google the address later and find a social profile with their name. Or send them a follow up short email and get their name via the signature line.
  4. If you’re in a chaotic setting like a conference or networking event and you’re getting multiple business cards, jot down what you talked about with someone on their card so you later remember who this way. I’ve never had someone get offended when I say, “Hang on, I want to write down what we talked about so I can follow up with you later.”
  5. Bring someone with you who is good at names and later, in a quiet environment, ask them to tell you the names of all the people you met. I’m spoiled on this one because I work in an office where we routinely pair people with good relationship skills with the folks who aren’t as strong at relationships. This models good skills for me and has helped me learn a lot. It also takes the pressure off me to small talk. I recommend this wherever possible.
  6. Forget, then ask. Let’s say you met someone in a non-note-taking setting and talked for 15 minutes and don’t have a clue what their name is. Of course if you’re with someone who knows their name, you can wait until they walk away and ask that person (fair warning about a quarter of the time that person will admit they have no clue what the other person’s name was). Or …
  7. Ask directly with something like, “I’ve enjoyed talking to you and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I forgot your name and I really want to talk to you again. What’s your name?” or if you’re an idea person like me, “I got so caught up in your ideas about ____ that I forgot your name, what was it again?” No one minds being told they have great ideas.

You really can ask someone their name the next time you run into them and not get yelled at. I do this often and I’ve yet to have someone react badly. Worst case, they look annoyed and think I’m scatterbrained, but about a third of the time they admit they’re bad with names and ask me for mine too.

And sometimes I just fake it if I think I’m not going to run into them a lot, but if it’s likely I’ll see them again, I suck it up and ask. This also really works if you can work a compliment into the ask, as in, “I loved that conversation we had about ___ and I’m so sorry I don’t remember your name.” However, do not use compliments unless you mean it. Forgetting a name plus a fake compliment is adding injury to insult.

Oh and if you’re trying to fake that you remember their name, try 4 seconds of eye contact and a warm smile.

This stock photo looks nothing like the meeting I attended, and I also do not know these people's names.

This stock photo looks nothing like the meeting I attended, and I also do not know these people’s names.


How to navigate a world without names

You do not have to use people’s names in conversation.

Honestly, when do people use your name?

  1. They’re your parents and they’re mad at you
  2. They’re trying to get you to do something or sell you something
  3. You’re being condescended to
  4. Someone’s trying to get your attention
  5. Someone wants you to know you’re important to them

Don’t get me wrong, if you can remember names, absolutely use them. But if you suck at names, you can easily do #4 and #5 without names.

People love to be asked questions and really listened to. And I remember ideas very well. So I talk to people about ideas and I remember them based on the ideas we shared and the vast majority of the time this works.

(Side note: if I can talk to you one-on-one for about an hour about ideas, then we’re good. I’ve got your name firmly embedded in a network of ideas that will allow me to retain it.) (Second side note: if I jokingly ask what your astrological sign is, this is one way I have of tagging your name to a collection of ideas for better retrieval, though there’s always the danger that I’ll remember your sign and forget your name.) (Third side note: if we’re in public and someone walks up and starts talking to me please, by all that is holy, introduce yourself. If I haven’t said their name in the first twenty seconds, I don’t know it. (I probably remember that they’re a Libra, though.) Please spare me having to admit that.)

I got a lot more effective with people when I stopped beating myself up for not learning names.

I also noticed that there are a lot of other things people love hearing in addition to the sound of their own name:

  • That I listened and understood what they said to me
  • That I value their thinking, ideas or perspective
  • That I like something about them (the genuine compliment)
  • That we share a passion I’m happy to talk about
  • That I have expertise I’m willing to share to make their life easier

You can use any of those instead of a person’s name to have them feel like they’re important to you. In fact, if you only use their name and none of those, they’ll probably feel manipulated rather than connected and understood.

If you suck at names like I do, doing away with any pressure, shame or fear about forgetting names is a big step toward having more fun with people.

Want to read more? Check out my post on why my new novel is about mental health.