Have I Met You Before? Three ways to minimize embarrassment when meeting people


An embarrassing incident
I was hanging out at the Marlboro South Pond Regatta, a whimsical affair where local sailors of all stripes and abilities casually “race” around a few buoys in the lake, sometimes stopping to chat mid-race with each other or watch our beautiful loons. (They carry their babies on their backs — see photo!)

A man passed, and our eyes met for a moment. “Have I met him before?” I thought. “He looks very familiar.” But I couldn’t make the connection, and said nothing.

A few minutes later, my wife, who was talking to a woman I didn’t recognize, turned to me and said, “You remember Lisa don’t you?” Memory flooded back, and I realized that I’d met Lisa on Anguilla 18 months ago when she and the familiar man, whose name I now remembered as Willy, had visited the island.

I felt a little embarrassed.

This happens all the time
As a facilitator of conferences and meetings, I meet and talk with hundreds of people every year. I used to be pretty good at recognizing people I’d previously met, and was invariably able to remember their name, the circumstances, and what we talked about.

These days, my memory for these things…well, it sucks.

While I’m with people, I remember them well and can be with them effectively, using the information they’ve shared to explore new areas and deepen the relationship.

But within a few days, my recollection starts to blur. Circumstances, names, and details of our conversations disappear from short-term memory, and if I later see someone again I often can’t put them in context. A reminder brings my memory back, but needing one can be embarrassing. I don’t want to forget the people I meet — but my aging brain is less cooperative.

What to do?
I don’t want to fake remembering someone when I can’t initially place them. Having an aide with flawless recall at my side wherever I go, ready to whisper “that’s Merrigan Pertussis; you met her at the 2012 Nutrition for Athletes; in September you water-skied with her younger brother Placido in Ibiza” would be nice, but, unfortunately, is not an option for me or, I suspect, most people.

So here are three ways to minimize embarrassment when meeting people whom you might have met before.

1 — Rephrase your opening hello
My habitual opening remark on meeting someone used to be:  “Hi, good to meet you!” This is fine if you haven’t met them before. But if you’ve previously met them, they’re going to feel compelled to say something like: “Actually we met at the Bicycle Chain Association conference in Monaco.” Embarrassment ensues.

Instead you can say:

“Hi, good to see you!”

See what I did there? Simply replacing “meet” with “see” removes any implication that this is the first time you’ve met. “See” is comfortably ambiguous.

This is a little sneaky, but it works. Of course, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll figure out in a timely fashion that you have met this person before, but at least you’re not giving your cluelessness away in the first sentence out of your mouth!

2 — You’re introduced to someone you may have met before, but can’t make the connection
If a third party introduces you to someone you might have met before, you can respond to the intro with:

“I’m looking forward to get to know you better!”

This would be a weird opening sentence without an introduction, but it could be used as a follow up to #1, giving you a little more opportunity for them to drop a clue as to when/how you previously met. Again, no guarantee you won’t be forced to ‘fess up.

3 — Be honest

“Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policy.”
Sir Edwin Sandys, Europae Speculum, 1599

Finally — and this is always an option, perhaps the best according to Sir Edwin Sandys — be honest. Simply say:

“I’m sorry, but you look really familiar. Have we met before?”

The familiar-looking person before you is then free to:

  • Share how you previously met; or
  • Tell you they think you’re mistaken; or
  • Admit you have met — but can’t remember how/when/where either!

Whatever happens, you’ve cleared the air and can move on with the most important part of meeting anyone: forming and growing a relationship!

Conclusion
I hope these simple ideas may help you reduce the awkwardness that you can feel on meeting someone for the first (or-is-it-not-the-first) time.

Do you have your own ways to minimize embarrassment when meeting people who you think you may have met before? Share them in the comments below!

[A hat tip to Mary Byers, who suggested #2 during a recent conversation, inspiring this post!]

Loon with babies photo attribution: Paul Bogart