I was at the mall last night. There were a grand total of 100 people in it. And apparently I knew a quarter of them. Or maybe more accurately, they knew me. I didn’t recognize most of the people who said hi to me last night, although more than a few called me by name. I couldn’t reciprocate.
Gulp. I’m a pastor. Aren’t we supposed to care about everyone we meet?
We are. But we’re also human — my memory just isn’t that good. Those exchanges can be, well, so awkward.
Here’s the issue: I’ve simply met thousands of people over the years. I believe my memory bank hold about 2000 names. Then it starts auto-deleting. Or it scrambles names and faces. Or it just freezes.
People always say I have a great memory for names, but I’m not sure that’s really that true. I’ve forgotten far more names than I’ve remembered. And unlike many people, I can’t claim I never forget a face. I totally forget faces. If I saw them in a police line up, I would swear I never met them before, only to learn later that they attended our church for two years. Or they’re my third cousin.
This isn’t just a ministry thing. I’m sure retail workers face it. So do physicians and lawyers. Almost anyone with a public interface deals with it. And in church world, dark theaters, multiple services, multiple campuses and 16 years of ministry in one area makes it a recurring phenomenon.
What do you do? I’ve learned a few things I’d love to share and would love to hear how you handle it.
Let’s start with some bad strategies:
1. Ask them directly for their names. This worked at first, but I soon found myself asking the same person five times. I know because they started telling me this was the fifth round of me asking their names. Cue crawling under a rock.
2. Ask them how to spell their name. I would say something like “Oh, and remind me how to spell your name again?” Once you hear them say “Joe” “J-O-E”, you realize the strategy has its limits.
3. Substitute a word for a name. “Buddy”, Hey You” or “Hey Man” gets old fast. Plus, what do you say to a woman? Dude doesn’t quite make the cut. It doesn’t take long for people to sense you’re clueless.
So what works? Love to hear what you’ve learned, but here’s what’s helped me:
1. Make the exchange about them, not your discomfort. I found that I would hit panic mode when I couldn’t remember someone’s name, and I would ruin or taint our conversation because all I could think about was that I didn’t know their name. I’ve learned to relax, realize that running into people whose name I can’t remember is actually normal, and just listen to them. It makes for a much better exchange. Strangely, my fear and panic ended up being selfish and made the moment awkward for everyone. I can care about them whether I remember their name or not.
2. Try a ‘side’ introduction. If I realize this is someone I should get to know better but can’t recall their name, I look for someone I know nearby. I make an introduction. “Have you met my wife Toni?” At that point I shut up. Toni (or my assistant or a friend or staff member) naturally extends a hand with “Hi, I’m ______” and the nameless person responds with “Great to meet you. I”m __________”. Works almost all the time and no one feels awkward. You just have to listen carefully so you remember their names this time.
3. Ask someone nearby. If I can’t use the introduction tactic but I want to know the person’s name, and there are people I know well nearby, here’s what I do. I finish the name-less conversation and pull up to a friend nearby. I quietly ask them whether they might know the name of the person I was talking to. I do this as the person I was speaking with is still in sight so they can see who I was speaking with. Works some of the time. And if they don’t know, they’ll often hunt down someone who does.
4. Ask, once you are deep in conversation. If this is someone I know I am going to track with moving forward, and none of the above strategies will work, I usually just come clean. I’ll say “You know, I’ve loved this conversation and I really want to track with you moving forward, but I’m embarrassed to say your name has slipped my mind.” Usually by that point we’ve had such a good conversation that they are really happy to share it. I only do this if I am going to track with the person moving forward. Otherwise, it was just a healthy, nameless conversation. That actually still has value.
So that’s my little awkwardness-reduction primer. What have you learned?
Short of keeping a stack of name tags and a Sharpie in your pocket wherever you go, how do you tackle this?