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Ask Anyone


They say some people have photographic memories when it comes to names and faces. Not me.

At a reunion this weekend, I’m going to see a lot of old friends I haven’t seen in twenty years. What’s the best way to strike up a conversation with someone whose face you recall, but can’t name? Also, a lot can change in 20 years. What if I don’t even recognize a person who recognizes me?

Do you experts have any tips or suggestions for how to handle awkward situations like these?

What’s His Face

The Straight Skinny says: You could always try the preemptive assault: Go slap someone good-looking across the face and say, “That’s for prom night, you jerk.” They’ll all think you have the memory of an elephant. Of course, they’ll also think you’re out of your mind, but you can ask our advice about dealing with that in another letter.

Dining Out says: It is fairly awkward, especially when people you once knew are probably bald, a bit heftier. Some of them may be barely recognizable, thanks to bad botox jobs and extreme plastic surgery. Most reunions offer name tags so it is odd that your reunion committee forgot to make them. Just be honest and simply tell the person whose name you cannot remember that it’s been a long time and you forgot his or her name. And maybe the next time you get invited to a social function, you can offer your services before the event and specify the importance of name tags.

The Back Room Guy says: Sneaky solution: Bring along a friend or partner who most of your long lost friends haven’t met. Then let your friend introduce themselves to each person, in your presence of course, and you’ve got the names to go with your faces.

Seinfeld used this technique during one episode to uncover the name of a woman he had a date with. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well for him and Deloris didn’t reveal her name until it was too late.

The Moviegoer says: If they were friends, you would have kept in touch. I’m not sympathetic to your quandary. However, I share your problem. And I avoid reunions like the plague. For a myriad of reasons I don’t think we need to get into (I’m not taking applications for friends right now). So you don’t remember people’s names. I would just be honest. Why lie? Try this, “I know I remember you, but I’m drawing a blank on your name…We dated? I don’t think I remember that… You lost your virginity to me? Gee, this IS uncomfortable.” I’m sure it won’t be that bad. Stop worrying and good luck!

The Practical Cogitator says: Name tags, man. Make sure you wear yours, and make sure you look at theirs. My only other suggestion is generic nicknames like, “Hi there, Champ! You’re looking good these days.”

The Bookworm says: Actually, there’s quite a body of work in psychological circles concerning this phenomenon. In The Seven Sins of Memory, Daniel Schacter, Chairman of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University sees it as a form of blocking. It’s not a failure to have stored the memory, but rather an inability to retrieve the stored information. From the book:

Theoretically, remembering a name of anything requires sequential access to three kinds of knowledge: a visual representation; a conceptual representation of what the thing does; and a phonological representation of the sounds. Language processing models add a level, which Dr. Schacter calls the lexical level: how the word fits into a sentence.

Stress can also contribute to a person’s inability to retrieve names. Since reunions are often both fun and stressful, it might be an interesting study to see if people at these events suffer an increased incidence of this happening.

I once brought this up at a party, and referenced an interesting piece published by the College of Family Physicians of Canada in 2003, entitled “Memory Loss with Aging: What’s Normal and What’s Not.” From the story:

Information stored in the short-term memory may include the name of a person you met moments ago or a phone number you just looked up. Information stored in the recent memory may include what you ate for breakfast or what you did yesterday.

For some reason, nobody else found this interesting, and I spent the rest of the party playing with the host’s cat.

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