I’m Sorry – I Don’t Remember Your Name

A few years ago, I realized that I had run out of namespace in my brain and the only way I could learn a new name was to forget one that I already knew. This notion annoyed me for a little while, then amused me, and then became my reality.

I’ve always been bad at names + faces, but I have a savant like ability to remember stuff that I’ve read, especially numbers. I’m a visual learner, not an auditory learner. Not only can I read much faster, I retain so much more. So it’s not that surprising to me that when someone comes up to me it’s hard for me to associate their name with a face.

This used to not matter much. But in the last decade the number of people who know me, or know of me, overwhelms the number of people I actually know. Part of this is the function of the network vs. the hierarchy where the network is completely dominating in my world.

As I reorient my work patterns to eliminate travel, more aggressively leverage the network, and become one with the machines, I’m less interested in “hi my name is Joe Smith” and much more interested in just interacting with Joe Smith. This can be awkward for some, especially those who really want a physical connection of some sort (e.g. “can we meet for coffee?”) but if you want a magic decoder ring for my life, just start “doing” and remember that my world is a network and a doeracracy.

Please don’t be offended when you come up to me and have to reintroduce yourself. It’s definitely a me problem, not a you problem.

  • Paul Meyer

    I’m a sales and marketing director that suffers from prosopagnosia or “face blindness”. It is hard enough to explain the condition under the best of circumstances (and dizzying when I lose your wife in a grocery store.) I can remember names just fine, but associating faces is very difficult. I gain some advantage from location context, but it’s not always enough. Calling on customers can be managed, but a tradeshow is a terror for me.

  • Ben Erez

    “A few years ago, I realized that I had run out of namespace in my brain and the only way I could learn a new name was to forget one that I already knew”. Sounds like a classic manifestation of Dunbar’s Number!


  • RBC

    haha, thanks for the chuckle. This is a problem all of us face in 2013! There are a few politicians who are amazing at this though – my uncle worked with John Kerry in the ’70s, and bumped into him on the trial for his 2004 campaign – unprompted said hi and said my uncle’s name. Would have been cool to be on a first name basis with the President … but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.

    • I once spoke to a photographer that took photos for both the Senate Dems and Republican Dems. He said there are two Presidents he photographed that were exactly alike: Reagan and Clinton. He said when they entered a room, there was an aura, and by the time they left they knew everyone in the place including the busboy.

  • Jeffrey Hartmann

    I absolutely hear you here Brad, I’m SO very horrible with associating names and faces. Sometimes people who have been my good friends for years will find me in a conversation where I purposely avoid using names, and won’t remember their names until I walk away. I’ve actually gotten quite good at the art of conversation when you forget a name. Its not that I don’t care about them or our relationship together, it is just that I have a big problem with names.

  • Exactly. I get cold emails asking me to have coffee to pick my brains on something.

    Well, if you want to pick my brains, pick it over that first email you just wasted asking me for coffee. The coffee might be an outcome of a relationship, not the start of one.

  • Shane Pearson

    I have the same problem. If we have do something — talking through a concept, etc — I probably will remember you. Otherwise it’s hard a lot of times.

  • As we continue to add hundreds of new Techstars founders, I have the same affliction. I know people by their title and company name. 🙁

    • Yeah – I’m all about founders@ …

  • AndyGCook

    I have the same problem and a similar memory for remembering factoids about people, but not names. Being a Dale Carnegie fan, I decided to build an app to help me remember people and commit names to long term memory with as little effort as possible.

    It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully the app is helpful to everyone struggling to remember names: http://www.nombreapp.com

    Would love any feedback or thoughts. Please feel free to reach out via Twitter – @andygcook

  • I can remember faces, but never names. Legacy from being on the trading floor in Chicago for 25 years. I remember badges. Always get the question, “Do you know Joe Smith from the floor?” I ask, “which exchange was he at and what pit was he in, and do you remember his acronym?” If they don’t, I generally don’t have a clue. I will be forever known as “CR” in some circles.

    • i’m the same way. I can almost always tell whether I’ve met someone or not…but seldom remember the person’s name unless i’ve met/talked to them 3-4 times.

      • Pointsandfigures

        Johnny Carson introduced himself to his audience every night. Every night

  • TamiMForman

    Brad — It’s funny. Whenever I see you I always say the same thing. “Hi, Brad, it’s Tami. I run PR for Return Path.” I just think it’s good manners. I know you know me, but wouldn’t expect you to remember my face, given that I’ve seen you a handful of times in 10 years. You always smile and say “Oh, hello Tami. So nice to see you.” And you always look slightly relieved that I didn’t make you try to remember who I was. 🙂

    • dbriere

      I agree with Tami. This problem confronts all of us. I left the Verizon Wireless guy working on my phone in a semi-heart attack when I told him I had 10,000 names in my Contacts database. And I trimmed that back a few years ago. It’s still way too many, but I don’t have time to do better. Waiting on that startup to solve that problem for me.

      In the meanwhile, I always, like Tami, go up to people and tell them my name and context, assuming they had forgotten it. I don’t take offense. it’s just too much. So if everyone did this, your problem perhaps would be substantially erased.

      What *I* need to work on is when people say, “Oh you are surely familiar with XYZ thingamajob…” and I immediately say “Yes” even though I don’t know, because I feel like I’m an idiot if I don’t know about it. That’s just a knee jerk reaction I need to solve!

  • Gary Kahn

    For those who recognize somebody and their name once they realize what he/she does, here’s a clip from Breaking Bad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHKrCs1rFRI

  • Hmm.. I have never heard of a visual learner, ie. photographic learner, having trouble with faces/names. If you are in fact a visual learner or photographic learner, there’s a simple trick to it. Associate a unique visual item with the individual while remembering the surroundings around the person or place you are in. For example, Joan has a blue shirt at the football game. If you’re visual, You won’t ever forget that. I’ve been doing this since grade school and I never forget a name/face. So much so, in fact that I bump into people all on multiple continents that I have not seen or talked to since I was 10 years old. Give it a try.

    Also watch this video on the first female chess grandmaster and how she remembers the millions of possible chess moves. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wzs33wvr9E

  • Completely outrageous!

    Please apply yourself a little more and learn the names and faces of everyone on the internet.

  • Christina Roberts

    I’m such a visual learner that if I don’t read it, or write it down, then it doesn’t stay. I also “see” words in my head as they are being said, which is basically a subconscious thing that intrudes intro my conscious, but anyway I have to visualize stuff. I am learning Italian right now, and this particular issue makes hearing (comprehension) and speaking (must think Italian) tough for me. It helps me to visualize a name written down as I look at someone, to remember it in the future. Sometimes it works!

  • It’s not who you know.
    It’s who knows you.

  • megansweeney

    I love people who don’t remember names because it makes me feel less guilty when I don’t remember names!

  • michaelamar

    Hey Brad I know i’m late on this and you probably don’t have much time but if you care to solve the brain space problem there’s a solution; http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/349426.The_Memory_Book