Thursday, June 12, 2008

Strategies for When You Can't Remember Someone's Name

We're off to Syracuse tomorrow, for the opening of the 2008 Everson Biennial, which I was honored to be asked to jury and can't wait to see finally installed. If you're in the neighborhood, please come see the exhibition. There is a wide range of media included and some truly wonderful work.

It will be an unusual opening for me, though, in that I have only previously met a few of the 55 artists in the show. I doubt I'll meet them all, but knowing I'd be meeting more than my poor memory banks will be able to store got me to thinking about the strategies I use for remembering peoples' names. Some are worth sharing perhaps, but more than that, perhaps you have helpful hints you're willing to share as well.

Mine first.

Back when I lived in Washington DC, the Congressional candidate whose campaign I worked on explained that in politics you meet so many people you never say "Nice to meet you" when working a crowd. Odds are you'll say that to someone you had previously met, but don't recognize, and they'll feel insulted. Instead, you say "Nice to see you," because that covers both the folks you're meeting for the first time and those you've met before.

I use that phrase in the art world religiously. Because I forget people's names almost chronically. It's not just how many people I meet (although it's partly that), I'm more a visual person, and rarely forget a face (OK, so that's been known to happen, too... more and more the older I get). But to avoid the awkward "I can't recall your name" scenario, I'll lean on terms of endearment in my greetings and discussion: "How are you, darling?" or "Hey Dude, where you been hiding?" All very genuine...all nicely generic...all the while hoping their name will come back to me. I also use terms of endearment with people I hold dear, though, so don't feel offended if I call you "Sweetheart." I mean it...your heart is sweet. ;-)

When Bambino's nearby, he's learned to read my body language and jump in to save me. Or if Bambino's never met the person, he sees my signal, and we do the old cough routine. I introduce the person to Bambino, and it proceeds like this:
"Do you know Bambino?" [but with his real name]

I then have to turn to, er, cough or sneeze, right at the point I should introduce the other person back. The name-unknown person will jump right in and introduce himself. This necessitates not fake coughing or fake sneezing too loudly though, so as to be sure I catch his name too.
But enough of my totally transparent tricks. What's in your satchel? How do you navigate the "I can't recall your name" canals of the art world?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find that repeating the person's name at the end of your introduction helps. So if I meet someone named Dan, I always say "Nice to meet you, Dan" and then try to use their name in a sentence as soon as possible after that (i.e. "Well, Dan," or "As you know, Dan,.."). Not only does this help you remember their name because you've said it out loud twice, but even if you DO forget they think you will remember by now because you've made a point of saying it twice to their face.

I think you're dead on with the "introducing someone else to remind you of their name" technique...that rarely backfires in my experience.

6/12/2008 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger Tracy said...

Ed, thanks for the tips and I will now watch for those activities when I see you again:) (remember-we talked at the art fair last March? Just checking)

I skip over all the coughing and sneezing things and just go for the awkward "can't recall your name" thing along with a joke about my aging brain, which everyone but the 22 year olds understand.

If I have met someone at one of my openings there is likely no way that I can remember a name no matter how much I talk to a person. Most people understand that and apologizing profusely helps.

6/12/2008 09:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like Tracy, I joke about having a "senior moment."

The interesting part of this is seeing how offended some people are when their name is forgotten. I do know a handful of people who never ever forget a name but they are rare. Most of us have memory lapses. When someone admits not remembering me, I always say, "You do that too? I thought I was the only one who forgot names."

6/12/2008 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

I'm on board with Tracy's approach, though I usually chalk up my lazy memory to ever more ridiculous neurological disorders. I find that, "Forgive me, it seems my Mad Cow is flaring up and I can't remember your name," is always well received; or try this one out, "All apologies, I'm terribly drunk and I can't seem to recall just who you are and why we're talking to one another"--though in my case this latter dodge is often more of an honest confession. Never underestimate the power of a good blank stare. You can always claim that you suffer from mild seizures, and then ask if anyone needs their drink refreshed (a good set up for that confessional moment later in the evening).

6/12/2008 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

When someone admits not remembering me, I always say, "You do that too? I thought I was the only one who forgot names."

That's very kind of you. Sometimes, however, you're perhaps not able to joke like that (such as when you forget the name of the spouse of a collector who acquired a major piece from you).

I loved the scene in "The Devil Wears Prada" where Streep's "Wintour" character hosted the party at the Met and had her assistants at her side reminding her who was who (including their spouses) so she could glide through the event and convince everyone she knew them. One day we'll have technology do that for us (a face recognition program fed through a camera in your glasses that displays names you can read, but no one else can, perhaps). Creepy? sure...but who wouldn't want one?

6/12/2008 10:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

A simple trick is to pick out a prominent feature, something striking or unusual about the person's face, and mentally write their name on that feature. For some reason, it helps me to imagine doing it with lipstick.

A more involved technique is to convert the person's name to an image. For someone named Robert, for instance, you could make an image of a robber (scruffy guy in a low cap and a black & white striped prisoner's shirt with a flashlight and a sack) and imagine him trying to break in to Robert's limpid eyes, or whatever feature you immediately notice. This takes some practice but it's effective because you can get last names this way too. When I teach a class I use this technique to memorize all the students' first and last names on the first day.

Three important things to know about memory:

1. You won't remember something if you don't member it first. If you half-hear someone's name, or if it's sufficiently unusual that you don't know how to spell it, it's not going to come back to you. It's okay to ask again and again - people usually appreciate the effort. (And like the previous commenters says, it's best just to cop to it if you don't recall.)

2. Sexual and violent images are the easiest ones to remember.

3. This is a learned skill. Interestingly, it doesn't transfer that much. There are memory contests in which people compete to see who can memorize the longest binary number or the largest number of face-name combinations. If you take someone who can memorize a 300-digit binary number and put them on the face-name problem, they do marginally better than someone with zero training.

6/12/2008 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

After an event, or sometimes in the middle of it (if I need to hit the restroom anyway), I will write down names, titles, spouse's names, etc. of everyone I remember.

If I get get business cards, I always go home and immediately scribble info on the back of them before they are filed in the mailing list pile.

6/12/2008 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Ok here is what I think. First of all, I try to follow one of my few rules which I noted in book when I was teenager. The rules were about how to impress other people. One of the rules was “Continuously repeat opposite person’s name during the conversation” It will give impression how important he/she to you. And isn’t nice when someone keep calling your name?
But it’s unfortunate especially for foreign people in the States and same for them. To remember people’s name is pretty hard, and I admire (and I know few people) whom would always remember people names. I bet many people would not know and would not remember my name.

One of my tricks was when I’ll meet someone new and the name is similar to celebrity’s name I would make connections and try to memorize their name.

Lately that doesn’t work, especially when you meet someone with beautiful and unusual name.

So for now mostly I would call everyone darlings, sweeties.

Also it’s hard to keep up with some people’s name when real name is Christopher and most of them like to use short Chris. And some of hate when someone call them Chris and prefer to call them as full name Christopher.
Same for Elizabeth – Liz, Michael – Mike, sweetie darlinkkkk – darlinkkkk sweetie :)

6/12/2008 10:33:00 AM  
Anonymous L.A.Moore said...

I just site the cumulative effects of early drug use, middle age drinking and the relentless march of age. Followed by, I'm sorry I've forgotten your name...

6/12/2008 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It's out of print, but a great book for this is Everyday Memory Builder by Jon Keith. Harry Lorayne's books aren't as engaging but they have detailed information on the same techniques and they're a little easier to find.

6/12/2008 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I rely on the nearly universal social awkwardness of artists. The last time I ran into someone whose face I knew well but whose name escaped me, I said, 'I'm sorry, I'm PL from your crit group, and I don't remember your name.'

She chatted with me for several minutes, but never told me her name. I had to email a mutual friend later and describe her face.

6/12/2008 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Ashley said...

Most of us are so over-stimulated and over-loaded with information- places, names, sites, dates, events, random song lyrics- that it seems more people have problems remembering the name of someone they've only met once or twice than people who don't have that problem (I actually have this problem with people I've met five or six times). I don't have a great on-the-spot strategy for remembering the names of new people- I try to write it down or repeat it many times. If they're another artist and I can picture their work I have a pretty good shot at remembering, however. To help others I carry my own business card (they're cheap- lots of places online to upload your own design!) and give them to people I want to remember me.

It's so awkward to pretend to know the name of someone you've already met when it's clear that you don't. Putting myself in the place of the other person, I assume that they probably can't remember my name as well, so I usually say something like, "Oh yes, we've met before, my name is So-and-so," and smile, trying to have a friendly, open, relaxed, expectant look on my face. Of course, that naturally puts them in the position of reintroducing themselves. I can't think of an instant where this hasn't worked. We all know it's a problem, so let's just find ways to confront it in a generous, gracious way.

I figure if I do these two things for others- give them cards and reintroduce myself- then instead of worrying about whether I have a problem or not I'm helping the other person not have that problem. That reduces my stress, and in the long run I think it's helped me remember more people.

6/12/2008 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes I'll do what dear ole dad used to do.
I'll say with an "excuse me voice", I'm sorry I've forgotten your name.
If she says Jane, I'll say... yeah I remember but what's your last name? If she says Doe, I'll say... yeah I remember but I've forgotten your first name or something to that effect.
If he says, Jon Doe... I'll try to follow up on our previous meeting... "sooo, how was your trip to Boise?" or "that judge was whack, how's your mom holding up?"

6/12/2008 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

EW, I use your "have you met Bambino" approach all the time, without the cough. I just introduce the person I know, and let the other person introduce themself. Seems to work just fine.

6/12/2008 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Manuel Pereira da Silva said...

Excellent Blog...glad I found a new source for checking out what's new and hot in the Arts...Thanks for writing good content!!!

6/12/2008 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

I mostly use the same approach as Chris (Christopher?). But I don't mind saying, "Sorry, I forget your name," with no other pretense or apology. I make it clear I remember them as a person, and that I want to know their name, so they always take it well.

6/12/2008 04:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspes said...

About the Syracuse thing: I hope they have a checklist (they should always have a copy). I use checklist to remember names, because it's easier for me if I can associate the name directly with the artwork. Sounds stupid to say but you'd be surprised in smaller events how staff are unprepared for checklist request.

I hope I'm not hurting anyone but I prefer the "real" name of Bambino than the nick. The one that starts with an A, is it? I'm not saying in case it's taboo. It's a lovely name, and I am remembering it.

People never notice if I don't remember their name. I just talk in ways that evitate the topic. And then I ask "hey, can you give me your email again?" (and find the name later).


Cedric C

6/12/2008 05:20:00 PM  
Blogger NYC said...

When that happens to me I will often talk a bit and leave in pauses. One of the 2 soon-to-be-offended people usually come forward with an introduction. I look surprised and say "oh, wow, sorry, I thought you 2 knew each other..."

And yes, I adopted the "nice to see you" policy as well. It always saves my a** once an opening.

6/12/2008 05:37:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

I use a version of Chris and Steve's approach.

Usually I remember something about having met someone--everything but the name. So I'll say something like, "Yes we met at So and So's party--we were both hunched over the snacks! My name is..."

Works every time.

6/12/2008 09:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Sus said...

I usually smile and say "Hey! How are you? What have you been up to lately?" Generally, something will click while they are talking and the name will drop out of thin air. Another tactic is to tell the buddy that you're with that if someone walks up and I don't immediately introduce them, they are to introduce themselves and I'll get the name that way.

One time at an opening, I was having a great run of remembering names. Blah-blah, this bling-bling. The names were just rolling! Then, I was introducing an acquaintance to a very good friend, and I lost the very good friend's name. Completely!

6/12/2008 10:04:00 PM  
Anonymous L.M. said...

I never forget the name of anyone's dog.

6/13/2008 12:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Oh Sally I love that loop of the running cat !!!


6/13/2008 01:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Oops I meant, LM, haha....ridiculous.


6/13/2008 01:30:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

I’d recommend taking photos of everyone you meet, videos are even better. Then compile these in to alphabetically indexed files. Systematically Google each individual and add relevant info to your file. Past small color photos of each person into a small notebook along with pertinent facts (address, job, and latest accomplishments children’s and pet’s names) keep the book handy and study it when ever you have free time like on the subway. Begin to chart the relationships between the various people (whose married to who, who are friends, went to school with each other, live near by, etc). Read ten to twenty art blogs and magazines daily and make notations whenever one of your “clients” is mentioned. Try to develop an almost omnipotent knowledge of their every action so when you meet them again you can say things like “hey weren’t you mentioned on page 22 of Robert Storr’s 1996 essay on…”

Then to avoid embarrassing questions or stalking charges, the next time you meet, smile broadly and sheepishly pretend that you don’t remember their names. Always works for me.

6/13/2008 08:02:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Loved the face recognition glass/program idea. I am poor at remembering names. Will use some of the tips mentioned here. Liked the paragraph on your escapades in DC.

6/13/2008 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

This post has been picked up by Andrew Sullivan.

6/13/2008 01:23:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I'm terrible at remembering names and, more importantly, terrible at exercising, even mentally. So Franklin's suggestions for improving memory won't work for me either.

Failing to remember names, however, is only one item in the long list of social ineptitudes from which I suffer. If I feel a need to make an excuse, I usually just say my alien masters didn't teach me that about humans. For names, though, I just say that I don't remember because I'm bad with names -- but that's only if I need the person's name for something. Usually I can glide right on by for weeks and weeks of acquaintance without knowing someone's name.

At the last opening I was at, I met this painter and I really wanted to remember his name because he told me I'd never heard of him and he didn't have a Website. I wanted to see if I could find anything about him online -- he was really interesting to talk to -- and all I could remember was "Les Archer."

When nothing came up, I asked the host of the opening, and she told me his name was "Les Fletcher." So maybe my memory's not as bad as I thought -- archers shoot the arrows, but fletchers make them. Not too far off.

6/13/2008 01:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...


I'd be afraid if you'd shot me on video. I'd stress at the idea that you would be putting it up on Youtube. ;-)


(loved that Koons meeting btw)

6/13/2008 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just say, "I can't believe I'm blanking on your name!", or, if it's someone I don't know very well, I assume they've forgotten my name too, so I say, "Hi, I'm Oriane and I'm afraid I've forgotten your name." I'm not offended when people don't remember my name, so they shouldn't get their knickers in a twist either. Now mispronouncing the name is a whole nother can of worms.

If someone has an unusual name, I usually ask them to spell it and that helps me remember it.

Whenever I introduce myself in a place where there is any noise (or often, even when it's perfectly quiet), when people hear my name for the first time, they always want to put a consonant at the beginning. Once at a very noisy opening, I kept saying, "no, Oriane, with an O, no L" and the guy kept saying, "right, Lori Ann, with an O, I get it." I finally said, "It's just like Lori Ann but it STARTS with an O." He looked confused and said, "Oloriann?" The friend who I was standing with called me Oloriann forever after.

(guess who)

6/13/2008 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps The problem with saying, "we met at such and such" is that you could be misremembering that too. One guy said to me once, "oh right, the last time I saw you you were pregnant! How are you?" I said he must be confusing me with someone else (and I've never even looked pregnant, so it wasn't a fat issue) and he insisted that he remembered me perfectly well and that I had been pregnant.

A general rule: NEVER refer to someone's pregnancy unless she brings it up first.


6/13/2008 06:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Name Game

Let's do "Shirley".

Shirley Shirley Bo Birley Bonana Fanna Fo Firley Me My Mo Mirley...Shirley


Nick Nick Bo Bick Bonana Fanna Fo Fick Me My Mo Mick...Nick


Chuck Chuck Bo Buck Bonana Fanna Fo Fuck Me My Mo Muck...Chuck

6/13/2008 11:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. What is the subject of this blog?

6/13/2008 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger Wil Murray said...

I've also found that shaking hands while saying "It's Steve, right?", or int h the case of women, Debbie or something. Regardless of whether your really think their name is Steve, this triggers some response in the person whose hand you're shaking.They become more interested in correcting as quick as possible and don't really notice that you didn't remember their name.
I think it also signals that they are someone whose name you did remember, just incorrectly, as opposed to "Who the fuck are you?"

6/14/2008 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...


I don't sweat it who cares.

6/15/2008 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger gnute said...

I immediately confess if I do not remember a name because I know nothing will save me.

But I compensate by telling the person bits about them that I remember because I'm very good with odd details.

6/17/2008 07:08:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I can't remember the name of this blog...but I think we've met before.

6/20/2008 05:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see a face I know and the name is . . . not there. I put out my hand and say Liz XXX (my last name).. do you remember me? This person is so enthralled at my humility that she/he will usually say their own name too and burst into some comment or other on life/the evening. Sometimes I say "Oh I remember YOU.." So phony I know. but i've heard that good manners is the art of making others feel good - truth's not the issue here. Also, I see this as a loving gesture.

My other method is to avoid the person briefly and start with A - every A name I can remember, the B etc. Just pronouncing the letter a few timed D.D. D.. Donna!!! yes.. can do it.

I forget faces too. It's bad.

10/21/2009 11:00:00 PM  

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