What do you do when you've forgotten someone's name?

Man with Post-it note on his forehead, with question mark on it. Image copyright Thinkstock

The shadow chancellor Ed Balls has attracted much comment for forgetting what someone was called. But what's the best way to remember names - and how do you get out of a tight spot when you've forgotten them again, asks Ben Milne.

"Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language." So wrote Dale Carnegie, author of How To Win Friends And Influence People. All the more galling then, when people forget our names - or we forget theirs.

There's even evidence that there's something uniquely forgettable about other people's names. A 1986 psychology study suggested that when we meet someone, it's one of the least memorable facts about them (lagging behind what we recall about their job, their hobbies and even their home town).

And there remains the brutal fact that many people are actually not that interested in finding out the other person's name. Psychologist Richard Harris from Kansas State University has written that our ability to remember names is closely related to our levels of interest in others: "Some people, perhaps those who are more socially aware, are just more interested in people, more interested in relationships."

So how can you remember a name? "What helps me is to repeat people's names back to them, and then say it again later," says etiquette consultant William Hanson. Other tactics include using mnemonics, word association or rhymes (Clare lives on a square; Giles has travelled miles).

So having forgotten that name again, what do we do? Hanson has this suggestion: "The trick at a party is, if we've been talking for a few minutes, is if someone comes over - let's call him Lucas - I would say to the first person, 'I'm so sorry, I've forgotten your name.' They'd then say 'It's John' to which you answer 'Oh, I know it's John, I meant your last name.' It's quite a nice trick. [John] might slightly clock what's going on, but hopefully he'd be too polite to say anything."

But what if you bump into "John" a few weeks later, and you've forgotten his name again? Hanson suggests that after you've said hello, you should try to prompt your memory by asking: "When was the last time we saw each other? What were we doing?" If that doesn't work, there's always the reverse tactic of saying, "Of course you won't remember my name..."

Of course, if you're working in showbusiness, there's always a convenient way around all this, as the late film director Lord Attenborough knew. Renowned for calling everyone he met "luvvie" and "darling", he confessed it wasn't flamboyance but that he was useless at remembering names.

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