Networking: What To Do If You Can't Remember Names

Published: Mar 05, 2012

 Interviewing       Networking       Workplace Issues       

"It's on the tip of my tongue."

Whichever company you work for, whatever industry you're in, there are always going to be more faces than you can possibly put a name to. Which makes for some awkward moments everywhere from the elevator to the company holiday party, to chance encounters in places completely unconnected with work.

How you deal with those moments can make a huge difference in how you're perceived by colleagues, clients and (crucially) those in a position to advance your career. Here, then, are some tips for making it through those times when you just can't put a name to the face.

If you can't remember, don't commit

The old saying "'tis better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt" definitely applies in these situations. Forgetting a name is one thing. Guessing the wrong one is another altogether, and one that is much more likely to offend the other party.

A better option: bypass the name altogether. Cut straight to questions like "how are you?" The person might suspect that you don't know, but unless they ask you outright, they won't be able to confirm it. Just make sure to learn and use the name next time you meet.

Focus on different details

A recent New York Times piece on Newt Gingrich highlighted the former Speaker's ability to work a crowd. According to the article, Gingrich "regularly encounters well-wishers who tell him that they chatted at a fund-raising picnic long ago, or that he worked with a third cousin of theirs, or that he once taught them as a college history professor."

The quoted responses from Gingrich are perfect examples of noncommittal details that gloss over the fact that he most likely has no recollection of ever having laid eyes on the person before: "nice to see you"; "Oh, yeah, that was fun." In one instance, Gingrich even fended off a question about whether he remembered someone (I grew up in Columbus, GA. […] does that sound familiar" by segueing into a response about when he'd next be in the town in question.

Introduce yourself first

Not remembering someone's name is less of a big deal if it's someone you met at a conference or networking event—and who might be equally hard-pressed to remember who you are. On such occasions, a simple "Hi, I'm [insert name]. I think we've met." Chances are, they'll be just as grateful for the easy out as you.

Introduce someone else

For those of us with terrible memories, the thought of a networking event can cause cold sweats: what if I have to introduce this person to someone else? The good news is, it’s possible—provided you know at least one party's name—if a little risky. The golden sentence: "have you met my friend/colleague Claire?" Hopefully, the other party will then introduce themselves. Worst case scenario: they come back with something like "nice to meet you," leaving you with just one option…

If all else fails, admit it

Sure, you might be embarrassed. The other person might even be offended—particularly if it's someone whose name you should know. But sometimes the only way out of an awkward situation is the one that starts with "I'm sorry, but…"

Of course, if you want to avoid all of that, you could always take the time to learn the name in the first place. Watch this space for a post on how to do that in the near future. (or set yourself a reminder if you're particularly forgetful!)