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

Morag Barrett is a sought-out leadership & executive development consultant, professional speaker, and author of Cultivate. The Power of Winning Relationships. Her second book, The Future-Proof Workplace, co-authored with Dr. Linda Sharkey was named Best Business Book of 2017 by Soundview Executive Book Summaries.

As the founder and CEO of SkyeTeam she partners with and speaks for a diverse range of clients, including Google, NTT Security, Charter Communications, The Society for Information Management and Ultimate Software among others. She has contributed to Entrepreneur.com, and CIO.com and has been featured in Business Insider, Inc and Forbes among others.

Morag was recently selected from more than 16,000 to join the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches Group. 100 Coaches are highly accomplished and compassionate people, each one committed to using their talents to make good people and organizations better. Together, the 100 Coaches create a unique spectrum of talent including the world’s leading executive coaches, consultants, speakers, authors, iconic leaders, entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders.

Morag holds a master’s degree in Human Resource Management from De Montfort University, UK and received the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) designation. She’s a recognized business coach for the Corporate Coach University and is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK.

When not at work, Morag can be found sailing with her three sons, playing the bassoon for the Broomfield Symphony Orchestra, or ballroom dancing.