Thought Catalog
April 18, 2017

This Is The Science Behind Why You Can Never Remember Anyone’s Name

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What is the issue?
Unsplash / Alexis Brown

I was at the gym a few days ago when I ran into a friend of a friend. We caught up superficially for a few minutes and then parted ways, but it wasn’t until I was 15 minutes into my run that it dawned on me, “Jeff. His name is Jeff.”

During our quick conversation I was trying to place the name to his face, and just couldn’t find it. Jo? Justin? Ian? No, it definitely starts with a J.

And then by the grace of circumstance the conversation was over and it didn’t matter. I was proud I had strategically avoided the dreaded, “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

But then I realized he never said my name either, we clumsily danced around the topic, dipping out just before it became inevitable. I felt like a dud, but I took solace in the fact that he couldn’t place my name either. Cancels the potential rudeness out, I think.

This weird moment got me thinking, what’s the deal with forgetting names? We can’t all be suffering from the self-diagnosed “I just suck at names” character flaw, can we?

If so, does that human flaw have a name? All I knew up to this point is it’s a bummer when my name doesn’t make it to the memory banks of a supposed friend or acquaintance. So I looked into it.

The Science Behind Forgetting

As it turns out, we can all be suffering from shitty name recollection, but for various reasons. In general, our brains are pretty good at compartmentalizing vital information.

But if a piece of information, in this case a name, is not anchored to an association — an object, story, or even another person — it becomes obsolete. Basically, you’re more likely to recall that girl’s name you met if she has the same name as your first pet, or ex-girlfriend.

Names Are Arbitrary

Whether your name is Ben, Jenny, Leah, John or some version of those, you are not the only person with that name. In fact thousands of people have your name, so it doesn’t mean much in an introduction. What makes you unique is everything but your name.

Unlike the clothes you wear or the way you speak, names hold little information, making it hard to connect with. There’s a better chance someone will remember your name because they associate it with some other person with that name than by organic recollection.

When I was serving tables, a lot of my regulars remembered me like this, “Taylor … like Taylor Swift!” To be clear, I wore a name tag every shift, but for some reason this association was easier for most people to grasp. No judgment, it’s just curious.

We Aren’t Paying Attention

Guess what, we’re more focused on our introduction than the person we’re meeting. Go figure. The next in line effect claims that we forget names because we’re preoccupied with preparing to introduce ourselves.

We Don’t Care

We forget someone’s name like we forget how many days are in June, it doesn’t matter until it matters. When we forget a name, we are admitting to a lack of interest in the person, on some level.

We don’t care, or we at least didn’t care enough in that initial introduction to confirm a name. When we don’t care, we are less likely to associate that person’s name with something else.

It seems that, because it has become socially acceptable to just be bad at names, we toss this characteristic around like it’s unfixable. But there’s something cringe worthy about someone saying, “Sorry I’m just so terrible with names.”

The hard truth is, blushing over your brain fart robs the confession of its sincerity. You might as well say, “You don’t matter enough to me to remember your name. Please tell me again so I can forget it, again.”

Frequently Forgetting Is Wildly Unbecoming … But Strategic

I’ve met a handful of people that ask me for my name every time we’re in the same social setting — one guy routinely asks if we’ve met before, but that’s another story.

I used to take this personally, but then I realized he might just be the kind of person that’s perfectly OK with not knowing anyone’s name, as long as everyone knows his.

There appears to be a layer of selfishness surrounding name-forgetting. It makes us look like we have far more important things to care about than the person right in front of us. I’ve been on both sides, and they’re both shitty. So why do we do it?

Once at a bar I ran into an ex’s cousin, and I tried to make nice and say hi, and after five minutes he viciously said, “Sorry, I totally forgot who you are.”

I knew that could only be true if he underwent electrotherapy or he’s really just that stupid. But I vote it was a tactic to make me feel unimportant. And it worked, for a moment at least.

How To Remember Someone’s Name.

Sometimes forgetting someone’s name is just awkward, and then you quickly get over it. But what about a professional relationship? Or your long-term boyfriend’s mom? Here’s how to avoid fucking that up:

1. Make remembering their name the goal of the introduction. When you’re introduced to a new, potentially important person in your life, shake their hand and repeat their name, like so: “Hi Linda, it’s nice to meet you.” Boom.

2. Figure out what kind of learner you are and use it to your advantage. Auditory? Repeat their name to yourself, then out loud (like in conversation, don’t just blurt it out. Stay with me here.) If you’re a visual or kinesthetic learner, it’s helpful to write their name down. Do it discretely in your phone, no one has to know.

3. If you must fail, do it quickly. It’s somehow more acceptable to ask for your acquaintance’s name a second time on the first introduction than 3 months, 2 group brunches and a Christmas card later.

4. If you haven’t seen this person in a while, you can do what I should have done and give your name again, “Hey I’m Taylor, again.” It’s a lot less painful than the alternative.

5. In the event that you have to admit you’ve forgotten their name, don’t tell them you’re terrible with names. Odds are that person isn’t stupid, and will be mildly offended by your insincere attempt at apologies.

Instead, apologize, ask for their name and cushion it with a genuine compliment. Something like, “That’s so cool you’re able to work from home, you must be really self-motivated. I’m sorry, I’m blanking on your name…” TC mark