When I was growing up I remember that when my dad called me it often sounded like “Lucy-Bella-Emma-Morag”. This hyphenated stumbling over my name often happened when he was distracted. As a point of clarification, Lucy was my mum, Bella was our dog, a cocker spaniel, and Emma, well that was because of Emma Peel from The Avengers.

I always assumed it was a symptom of being “old”. However, as the mother of three teenage boys, and not yet ready to describe me as “old” I find myself falling into the same cognitive mistake, much to the amusement (or frustration) of my sons. To be clear, the three of them can, at a glance can easily be mistaken for my husband, hence I find myself circling between the “Nick-James-Matthew-Christopher” combination.

My dad and I aren’t alone in experiencing the name confusion and misnaming others. It happens to us all.

Why Does it Happen?

Research conducted by Duke University seems to have solved the ‘why’. It certainly isn’t because we do it on purpose, or that we don’t care about the person. In fact, it’s because we do care that names can get confused.

The research showed that we store names in family groups of associated people that we like, or know. Interestingly the research showed this included the family pooch, but not so much the family cat.

If we store names in one part of our brain, it turns out that we store the information and facts about people in a completely different area. One that is more readily accessible.

It’s as if names are stored at the back of the knick-knack draw in the kitchen, where a bit of rummaging is required to find what you need, whereas information about a person is in the coat closet by the front door, ready for a quick ‘grab and go’.

This is why I remember you like motorsports, or raise llamas for fun, recently went to the Glacier Lagoon in Iceland, but for the life of me, can’t recall who you are.

Remembering names becomes even more challenging when we meet someone out of context, at the grocery store in casual clothes instead of the business suit, or heaven help us, at the neighbourhood swimming pool, let alone in another city while on a business trip. All the normal triggers and cues that might prompt the name are vaporized… all you have is that feeling of “haven’t we met somewhere before?”

Now, do you see why we remember stuff about people but not their names?

What To Do When Your Mind Goes Blank

1. Wear your name badge, high and prominently! And a side plea to conference organizers, please print the name in LARGE print so I don’t need to get my reading glasses out.

2. Go first – Say your name, introduce yourself to others in the group you may not recognize and save the person who recognizes you but can’t for the life of them remember your name.

“Hi, I’m Morag Barrett. I’m the author of Cultivate. The Power of Winning Relationships and we met when I was the keynote speaker at the Dallas conference.”

3. Have a wing man or woman. When I am at an event with a colleague we have an agreement, if we don’t introduce someone it is the signal that we have forgotten their name. My colleague will then introduce themselves, as a result the person we are meeting will share their name and awkward moment is avoided.

4. Be honest and ask them! Say something like

“My apologies, I know we’ve met, please remind me of your name” or “I keep wanting to call you Sarah, but I know that’s not right.”

5. Ask someone else – it’s easy enough to ask someone else if they know the person you recognize. That way you can walk up confidently and say hello.

There you go, five things to do the next time you forget someone’s name. And if someone forgets your name, try not to take it too hard, none of us has a perfect memory!


Images courtesy of Depositphotos

  • About the Author
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Morag Barrett helps leaders achieve outstanding results through the power of their professional relationships. She is an in-demand keynote speaker, executive coach, leadership expert, and bestselling author of three books: Cultivate: The Power of  Winning Relationships, The Future-Proof Workplace, and You, Me, We: Why we all need a friend at work (and how to show up as one!)

Morag excels at helping leaders and organizations see the gaps in their development and discover new ways to move past them. A pragmatic ideator, she finds unique solutions to problems (usually through the power of connection). Her greatest joy lies in giving leaders the tools, encouragement, and resources they need to become the best authentic versions of themselves they can be. 

She also…

  • Has helped more than 15,000 leaders from 20 countries on 4 continents improve the effectiveness of their leaders and teams.
  • Is the proud mother of three 6ft tall sons who can thoroughly beat her in basketball, but don’t stand a chance in Scrabble.
  • Has been featured by Entrepreneur.com, Forbes, and The American Management Association among others.
  • Spent three weeks at sea with a group of Estonian sailors.
  • Prefers gin to scotch, despite having a Scottish name (it means “great” …and she is!).
  • Is a member of the 100 Coaches organization formed by Marshall Goldsmith.
  • Has more than 50 unicorn themed items at home (none of which she has bought for herself!)