Why you should never tell anyone “I’m not good with names”

Posted: January 18, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

There is nothing abnormal or heinous about forgetting names – I do it often.  But when you are in a situation where you do forget the name of the person to whom you are speaking, never, ever utter the phrase, “I’m sorry – I’m not good with names”.  This is a terrible thing to say.  Here’s why.

Nobody is perfect; we all understand and accept that. Nobody expects you to remember the name of everyone you encountered throughout your life – it is universally understood that this happens.  But this does not mean you don’t remember the person – you remember them probably quite well.  You recognize their face.  You remember when you last saw them; what you were doing when you bumped into them.  You probably even remember the topic of your conversation, and so the only “crime” going on here is that you forgot their label – big deal.  The person made an impression on you, you made an impression on them, and this is what truly matters.  This means something to both parties; you are secretly thrilled they remembered you, and the same is true in reverse.  Names are immaterial in this equation, when there is so much more going on.

But when you squint in discomfort, cringe, and then declare, “I’m sorry – I’m not very good with names”, you are giving off a very loud, clear and incorrect message that you don’t remember the person, and this is hurtful.  And even worse is when you try to wing it, and get it wrong.  I don’t care if you forget my name, but I care if you forget me.  I have a memorable face, and I say interesting things.  I am funny, and I made you laugh.  We talked about our cats, and I gave you a recipe for cat pie – how could you possibly not remember any of that? 

In addition, the declaration that “I’m not good with names” is purely an excuse, casting off personal responsibility for not making the effort to remember the name, and blaming it on some bullshit personal trait that has no basis in reality.  You’re fine at remembering names you need to remember, and have no problem with names of people you see frequently – remembering names takes practice, usage and requires you to commit them to memory.  We’re not good with anything until we choose to be, and so telling someone “I’m not good with names” is a subversive way of telling them that their name was not important enough for you to remember.  Holy insult, Batman!

Last month, I put this to the test.  I say hi all the time to the janitor at work; he’s a nice guy, and he knows my name, because it’s stuck on my cubicle wall.  I was once formally introduced to him ages ago, but for the life of me I could not recollect his name.  An awkward moment  presented itself where it became obvious I had forgotten his name, so I said:  “Ya know what?  I feel like an asshole right now, because we talk every day, but I cannot for the life of me remember your name.”

The guy laughed so hard he almost fell over, and then he told me his name was John.  He forgave me instantly, and even asked why I felt like I should have remembered his name, when there had never been a single occasion where I needed to know it.  I said I should know it because we speak almost daily, and I felt rude.  I sure as shit remembered his name after that, and the mutual enjoyment of each other’s company almost doubled in that moment.

So next time you forget a name, give it a shot – make absolutely sure that you communicate the message, “I may have forgotten your name, but this does not mean I forgot who you are.” 

This is a very important and powerful distinction.

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