I have a terrible memory. Especially for people. My memory for names is non-existent unless I’ve met that person many times. My face memory is a little better, but I struggle to place faces. If I see someone I’ve met several times at Young Adult Lit events in a totally different context I often cannot figure out who they are. But usuallly I don’t even recognise the face of the person beaming at me and saying, “Hi, Justine.”

Once the person I’m not remembering starts to recount how we met and describes the conversation I start to figure out who they are. But sometimes even that doesn’t help.

I know I am not alone in this. Almost every writer I know complains about it because we’re often in situations where we’re meeting someone who remembers us because we met at an event, which is a rarity for them, but common for us.

It’s not just a writer problem. Any profession where you’re likely to meet lots of people: retail, teaching, performing etc etc is going to run up against this problem.

I was horrible at remembering my students when I was an academic. To be honest I’ve always been bad at remembering stuff. I sucked at Memory games as a child. Still do.

How do politicians cope? I know Bill Clinton is famous for remembering every single person he’s ever met. But not all politicians are like that. How do they deal with so many different faces?

It could be worse. I know someone who has a condition which means they cannot remember faces. All faces look the same to them. Without name tags or someone prompting them they are lost. They are constantly giving offence.

So, I’m not that bad. And I’m better at faces than Scott is. Though sadly he’s about the same as me on names.

I have gotten better at simply asking the person to tell me how I know them. But often I’m too embarrassed. It feels rude.

Having a bad memory feels rude.

I really hate not remembering people. I know that I’m a wee bit miffed when people don’t remember me (which happens often) and yet here I am constantly doing it to everyone else. So much of the time I act like I know the person and keep the conversation going in the hopes that I can figure it out. Fortunately I usually can. Though there are the horrible moments when I decide they’re someone they’re not. Erk.

Seems to me that there’s only so much space in most (non-Bill Clinton) people’s heads for remembering. So the average person can at most remember, say, a thousand people. Once you meet more than that your brain starts deleting, or pushing them to a less easily accessed part of the hard drive. And creating trouble for you. Stupid brain.

I’m sure there are all these tricks for getting around the limited hard drive space. Hell, I know there are. Friends have taught them to me. But I keep forgetting to try them out.

How do you lot cope?


  1. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    Well, I am also terrible at names.

    For example, I’ve met E. Lockhart many times. I adore her. I know her. We’re friends, for chrissakes. And she came up to me at some breakfast, and it took me a minute to understand who she was.

    Or like I went back to my “old store” — where I worked a mere TWO WEEKS AGO — and I couldn’t remember several of the part-time employee’s names anymore. I feel like there’s just some kind of glitch in my brain for that.

    Because of that, I sort of expect that people won’t remember my name, so I try and make sure that (if I’m at an event or something) my nametag is very visible. And I hope that theirs is, too.

    (BTW, the only way I recognized you at that dinner thing is because I heard you give your name to the lady. Otherwise you might have just walked on by me without my batting an eye. No offense, I definitely know who you are!!)

  2. katerate on #

    Uhhhh, I personally don’t cope at all. I too am terrible with remembering people’s names, etc. I was sitting in art class once with one of my best friends, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember her name… and I’ve know her for about 4 years. She got really upset with me when I asked her what her name was again. And then at work I ask people multiple times what their name is (which got one of my managers a little angry and a waitress who I asked 5 times at least what her name was).

    It’s not like we’re too lazy to remember, right?! We just can’t.

    Is there anyone else in your family like that, Justine? Like your father or mother? I think I inherited this trait from my father’s side; he mixes me and my sister up all the time (as do his brothers with their kids). Maybe it’s genetic?

  3. Rebecca on #

    errr….i’m kinda good at remembering that stuff. i dunno why. i can remember the first and last names of people in high school that i wasn’t even friends with. sometimes i have to think about it, sometimes not. what i am really bad at is short term. sometimes people i haven’t met before will tell me their names, and five minutes later, i’ll have forgotten them. i think part of that might be nervousness. as for people remembering me, i’m the sort who fades into the woodwork, so to me it isn’t unexpected or offensive if i’m not remembered. plus, for some reason, i look like a rachel. i get called rachel and robin a lot. i think it’s all just normal.

  4. Ammy on #

    I’m a psycho when it comes to remembering names and faces. I remember names really easily, and I can clearly remember primary school years when I knew the first and last names of every single person in my class within weeks of starting school. Even if I didn’t have much contact with these people.

    Sometimes I’m known to forget a face when I’m not paying attention during introductions, but other than that, I work well with names and faces.

    Even so, if I’m watching a movie and I just KNOW that I’ve seen an actor before, imdb is my best friend in most cases.

  5. lili on #

    at a past reading matters, i was ticking a squillion names off lists at registration. and this woman got to the front of the queue and i sort of glanced at her and said ‘surname?’

    yeah. it was my mum.

    don’t you wish you could clear out the bits of your brain that know all the lyrics to the phantom of the opera or something, and replace it with something useful?

  6. chance on #

    I cope by indroducing myself usually and saying I believe we’ve met before, that tends to shake a name out of people.

  7. Justine on #

    Jennifer: That’s so funny. I was struggling to figure out you as well. Librarian or bookseller? But then enough was said for the penny to drop.

    It’s not surprising, though, is it? We’d met only once in the real world. Doesn’t matter how often you correspond if you meet rarely in real life you won’t have the instant face recognition going on.

    Katerate: I genuinely think there’s something wrong with my brain. No one else in my family is anywhere near as bad as me. Maybe it’s inherited from some relative.

    Rebecca: Don’t apologise. That’s an awesome skill! Hug it to your chest!

    Ammy: You’re lucky. And, yeah, imdb is my friend also.

    Lili: Hah!

    don’t you wish you could clear out the bits of your brain that know all the lyrics to the phantom of the opera or something, and replace it with something useful?

    Dunno. I kind of like all my Elvis trivia. I’d be sad not to remember what Elvis’ mother’s middle name was.

    Chance: Good strategy.

  8. PixelFish on #

    I guess I’m lucky that way, although I think it helps in my case that I’m very visually oriented. (Artist-writer combo.) However, I can still be overwhelmed when meeting a lot of people at once. While I’ve made a game of remembering people, more often I’ll just warn them that I’m meeting a lot of people, and maybe they can give me a little mnemonic jiggle later when we meet. This usually allays my anxieties later, because I reason that I must have told them to expect it, and then if I don’t remember, no harm done. IF I do remember, I get brownie points. 🙂

    This may not work for you, but I also try to find out something specific about people so I can file it away as “unusual” later. Like, labelling them “English James from Skye, looks like Harry Potter” in my brain. I try not to make it about their clothing though, since the next time we meet, they will likely be in different clothes. I also try not to associate them with movie stars or stuff like that, because it leads to embarrassing name mixups later. (For example, the realtor on our apartment looks like a ringer for Nathan Fillion–Mal, from Firefly–and I think his actual name is something like Eric, but in my head, I call him Nathan.)

  9. suzi on #

    i’m pretty lucky i guess that i usually have good face/name recognition, but there have been times when strangers come up to me and start talking about personal details of my life to me and i get all *omg, stalker!* and it just turns out that they know my mum and recognised me.
    my sister isn’t so great with the name remembering, and i know she uses mnemonic devices to help her remember, but this has hilariously backfired on her in the past, ie. calling a Mr Nankivell “Mr Tinkerbell” and a Miss Schneeberger “Miss Cheeseburger”. so I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a way of remembering names. i guess all you can do is pray people wear nametags.

  10. jenny davidson on #

    i’ve got pretty good name/face stuff, very good memory for certain kinds of intellectual/idea related things, but brain like a SIEVE for things like (ah, well, you had a recent example!) whether we already talked about a book we love or whether a student’s already told me about his/her dissertation chapter. i always open these student conversations with a sentence along the lines of “just assume that my sieve-like brain has totally emptied out whatever you already told me about this project/deadlines etc. and start from the beginning”–in many ways this is useful as their thinking on these things also changes.

    another tip, after several recent times in which i’ve embarrassed myself by being on a search committee & failing to have recognized the interviewee’s name in advance as someone that i’ve already met: i am banned from ever using the phrase “good to meet you,” i am only ever saying “good to see you” because then i’m covered if i did indeed meet them previously!

  11. Dawn on #

    I actually have an okay memory with faces and names. I think it’s because I’m more often in the background of so much that I’m such an observer that it comes naturally. Then again, I’ve never been in a situation where I meet a whole bunch of people constantly. It’s really unfair for people to expect writers to remember them all the time even if they’ve met them numerous times at past events. Even though it’s unfair, I understand why people get a little bit bothered. Everyone likes to think they have a memorable face or personality or something along those lines. I personally would like to think that I have a memorable personality and voice to my writing and comments that someone would remember who I was if/when I met them. Even though i’m deluding myself when I think that. Oh well. I still love all my favorite authors anyway…and comment like there is no tomorrow. A glimmer of hope makes me still think that “hey, maybe they’ll remember me.” lol.

  12. Laini Taylor on #

    I’ve got a decent memory for people — but I haven’t started doing many events yet and it’s not hard to be good with faces when you’re just seeing your husband and dogs most days! As for the “face blindness” condition, WIRED magazine ran a completely amazing article on it some time in the past year. I had no idea! The coping mechanisms of people suffering from that condition are truly extraordinary. Fascinatingly, if it wasn’t for the internet, and people with the condition finding each other, it might not have ever been recognized at all.

    Also, as a general memory aid, I think name tags would be a great every day accessory! I love it at conferences and conventions when everyone has their name tags on and you can surreptitiously peek. And then at the evening parties, when the name tags come off, I still keep peeking at people’s chests in hopes of finding out who they are!!

  13. Penni on #

    I have a better memory for voices than names. If I see someone familiar in a movie I have to close my eyes to work out who they are. Somehow I think it comes across as creepy in real life.

  14. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    i repeat people’s names in my head. a lot. so if i’m sitting there at a table with three or four others, i’m looking from face to face going “amy, janice, david, lily” and saying their name (in my head) each time I look at them. it sort of works in that, if i meet them often or for a long period of time, i’ll remember their name more often than i forget it. but i have to latch onto their name *right away* for it to really work.

    lots of times, if I can’t remember who someone is, and can’t fake it, and it’s come to that point where i *have* to know their name, I’ll ask. i begin with an apology, “I’m so sorry, you know how it can be with names…” and if they give me a hard time about it, I ask them if they remember my middle name, and insist that I told them what it was the last time we met, and why don’t they remember it, huh, huh, huh?

    i’ve heard that apple juice improves memory, and dehydration deteriorates it. don’t know if that is supposed to be long term or not. but i do know drinking apple juice clears my head if i’m spacey, so maybe it works?


  15. hereandnow on #

    I have a pretty good memory for names on paper/email, but am *terrible* at recognising human faces. Really bad. I often find it easiest to assume that people won’t remember me, anyway.

    I don’t mind keeping the Phantom lyrics (occasionally useful at trivia), but I wish I could get rid of all the URLs stored in my brain. That’s why we have google!

  16. Stacie on #

    “How do you lot cope?”

    I don’t, at least not any better than you do.

    And I’ve met you once, at SFRA 2000 in Cleveland–I assume academic to academic. I don’t know whether I would recognize you now without a nametag, but you are the only person I remember from that conference, apart from the gentleman who somehow sustained a semi-serious groin injury (but I don’t remember his name or face, just the incident).

    You I remember for the crossbow on your arm (because it was interesting), and the invitation to a LARP-like game because I (to my frustration) couldn’t go play. You said I “looked like a person who would enjoy” the game. Thanks, that’s a compliment; I am and was. Just FYI, I couldn’t play because my then-husband was having a snit about me being busy for four whole days in a row.

  17. Patrick Shepherd on #

    I have an excellent memory for faces, and an absolutely terrible memory for the names associated with those faces. The only way I can normally cope with this is “i’m sorry, but I seem to have forgotten your name…” not a great way to start a conversation, but better than groping through chit-chat desperately trying to remember who I’m talking to.

    As far as how politicians or other types of people who meet large numbers of people on a regular basis do it, Robert Heinlein in his Double Star indicated one method: A Farley file (named for the politician who invented it). This basically means that as soon as it’s practical to do so, you write down as many salient features as possible of someone you just met. This is certainly a good memory aid, but in addition it provides a easy way to look up what your prior interactions with someone were when you expect to be meeting them again. Unfortunately not something average people would have the time, inclination, or steady use for.

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