Sorry…Your Name is?

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.

Ever been there as a leader?

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?

18 Comments

  1. Don Jacobsen on November 18, 2018 at 11:39 am

    I’ve discovered if I lead with, “Hey, I know you…” the other person often responds with something like, “Yeah, I’m Bill, we met at a conference in Ohio a couple of years ago.” I’ll then say, “Man, you have a phenomenal memory…” and the preliminaries are gracefully covered and we can go on comfortably from there.

  2. Lynette Lynn on April 8, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    This is so good and so helpful! I find myself actually having anxiety and going blank as I start a conversation because of my fear of calling them the wrong name. I believe one of the most encouraging/validating things we can do for someone is to look them in the eye and say their name so in my mind calling them the wrong name, or clearly not knowing their name has the opposite effect! I really want to grow in this area! Thanks Carey for re-posting this article! Your podcasts, transparency and leadership nuggets have grown me more than any other virtual resource out there!

  3. John M. Harris on April 24, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Hey Carey, I think I remembered once a blog where you referenced the fact that the pastor isn’t meant to be the “buddy” or the “nice guy” or the “warm fuzzy grandpa” but that’s sometimes what our people are looking for. At least, I think it was you. was it? can you point me where that is?

  4. Rachel on March 30, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    I try to make a mental connection with their name to help me remind me. Like, they have the same name as my aunt, sister, a famous movie character etc.
    Also, when meeting someone for the first time, I explain ahead of time that I will try to remember their name, but I will probably have to ask them a few times. Often they will express their own difficulty with remembering names. And we both have a little chuckle.
    As a woman, I think I have a little more leeway with calling people “sweetie” or “dude”. I often refer generally to people by saying, “Hello, Lovelies!” It’s a stall tactic I use until my brain catches up and I remember their names. But I think that phrase might sound awkward or weird or even creepy coming from a man’s mouth.

  5. Dan ackford on February 18, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Try rhyming their name and say it as many times as it takes ie” scary carey ,scary carey ,scary carey ” until it sticks. If that doesn’t work and your meeting more than one person at a time as ski instructors we were trained to put the person in a situation like David is on a race horse going round the track and Fred is on the Donkey chasing the horse .Then Gord is riding the elephant that will never catch the horse while mike is hanging off the the elephants tail .Gail is overtaking the horse with a harley and Cathy is in the side car . Keep making up stuff this makes it fun .Ps I’m watching “wild hogs ” with the family .Later Dan

    • Carey on February 18, 2012 at 11:09 pm

      Whatever works, right?

  6. Chad Hoffman on February 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Forgetting people’s names stresses me out! Especially trying to remember the hundreds of volunteers who work in my ministry, I feel like a jerk they are on my team and I can’t remember their name! Great tools here I’m going to start using. Here are a couple that might be helpful to you that I’ve used.

    -Ask if you can exchange business cards.
    -If you are talking about a specific topic or they want you to help them with something, ask if they could write down their name and email address on a sheet of paper and you can write on the sheet what you are going to follow up with them on. Those of us who interact with a lot of people can play the “I help a lot of people all the time and don’t want to forget our important conversation” card. A lot of people totally get this and will appreciate you caring enough to follow up.
    -Ask them to send you their digital contact card via text message, email, or directly to your cell phone. They can send this to your work email if they don’t need to have your personal phone number. They will typically do it right away, and it will pop up on your phone as you are checking to make sure you received it, and you have it right away.

    • Carey on February 18, 2012 at 11:09 pm

      Great practical ideas Chad. Thanks!

  7. Laureen on February 18, 2012 at 12:00 am

    Hardy experiences this problem on a very regular basis, he attributes it to the numerous concussions he has had over the years. I have made it a habit to “side” introduce myself as often as possible to help jog his memory for him if I don’t already know the person. If I do then I make sure I say hello “so and so” or make small talk about our last visit to help him remember. Unfortunately after 4 kids and baby brain to the extreme I find myself forgetting sometimes now too. We are doomed if that keeps up, lol. He finds himself fogetting the names of people he sees regularly and it can be quite frustrating for him. He has even forgot Sarah’s name on a few occasions, believe it or not(but don’t tell her that). He has went so far as to print name tags each week for the kids to wear when he coaches the girls teams. He has also been known to call a few people “Big Guy” on more than one occasion if he has forgotten a name, only problem with that is they are usually smaller than him.

    • Carey on February 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm

      I had no idea this was such a widespread issue. Well, now we know.

  8. Josh on February 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    If only the side introduction worked for Jerry Seinfeld when he dated Deloris(Mulva)! I also have this problem and I noticed it happens to me most frequently when I don’t make a connection with someone or when I simply just get introduced and don’t actually talk with them.

    I find the side introduction does in fact work but of course, you have to have someone with you who hasn’t met this person. At first introduction I find that repeating the name gives me an advantage to remembering the person. I also find that tying them to a mutual friend is helpful, but again, this option isn’t always available. There has to be something unique about them whether it’s the way they talk, something they said, a story they talked about etc. that will help to permanently burn them in your memory.

    When all else fails I always buck up and simply say, “forgive me, I’ve forgotten your name”

    • Leslie on March 11, 2019 at 1:29 pm

      “Deloris (Mulva)” LOL!!

  9. J on February 17, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    When I first meet them I’ve tried calling them by name about 5-6 times in my first conversation with them. This helps when I do it, but I have failed to make it a habit just yet.

    • Carey on February 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      Great idea! Also, I think if everyone had a first name like yours that was just a letter, it would also only give us 26 names total to remember.

  10. trevor on February 17, 2012 at 11:57 am

    I have to deal with this a lot, as I suffer from mild associative prosopagnosia. (Which sounds way cooler than saying “I have difficulty remembering names and faces”)

    I suspect our brains are designed to cope with maybe a small village’s worth of people, and tracking large numbers of names, faces and personal histories can be quite daunting. For me the problem is often just speed of recognition – I can spend the first few minutes of a conversation desperately trying to recall a name, as if my brain is searching for a file stored offline on tape-backup.

    • Carey on February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Trevor…that’s a great point. In our hyper-connected world maybe we feel pressure to have more relationships than we were initially designed for. But somehow I still feel enriched by them!

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