What to Do When You Don't Recognize Someone You've Met Before

That awkward moment when someone greets you like a long-lost friend and you can't remember who on earth they are.
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That awkward moment when someone greets you like a long-lost friend and you can't remember who on earth they are.
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Art Credit: Andrea Rose

It’s an uh-oh moment: Someone approaches you, greets you warmly, calls you by your name—but you have no earthly idea who they are.

Forgetting a name is awkward enough, but not recognizing someone you have previously met takes embarrassment to new heights. Here are a few tactics for handling the situation as smoothly as possible.

Be proactive.

If you see someone heading toward you with a big smile and a look of cheerful recognition, extend your hand with an equally big smile and say your name, introducing yourself to them as if you are helping them to remember. The best case scenario is that they will respond in kind. This strategy creates an opportunity for both parties' names to be voiced and minds to be refreshed without anyone having to ask.

Be (partially) honest.

Admit you can’t remember their name (while glossing over the fact that you have no idea who they are). Humility and gentle self-deprecation are important here. After exchanging warm greetings, apologize with a look of good-humored exasperation and say “I am so sorry, my brain is not kicking into gear . . . please remind me your name?” When they give you their name, respond as if it was on the tip of your tongue: “Of course, Deb—it's great to see you!”

“How long has it been?”

A vague prompt can lead to a discussion of exactly when you two saw each other last and yield clues as to how you know this person. Other good openers: “What have you been up to lately?” Another safe response is, “It’s nice to see you,” rather than “meet you,” suggesting that you remember meeting them before—even if you don’t.

Offer an explanation.

The truth may be that you vaguely remember the person, but it’s a case of the person being out of normal context. For example, if you occasionally see this person at the gym in workout clothes, and now you they are dressed in a business suit, you can laugh when you make the connection and explain, “I didn’t recognize you. I’m used to seeing you on an elliptical machine!”

Dish up a little extra kindness.

The problem with forgetting that you have already met someone is that it makes them feel, well, forgettable. After you have established their identity and apologized for your memory lapse, compensate for any unintentional slight by showing plenty of interest in the person: “How have you been?” “What brings you here?” “When was the last time you went to that yoga class?” A little dose of genuine warmth and enthusiasm can smooth things over nicely while reinforcing your memory for the next time you meet.

And for those times that you are on the receiving end of a memory lapse, remember that grace and kindness are always the best ways to respond—even to the person you have previously reminded of your acquaintance at least a dozen times before.