When Names Escape Us
How is it that our minds often inexplicably go blank, even when meeting longtime friends?
I was recently invited to a reunion for a newspaper — now defunct — where I worked in the 1980s. I loved my job and made good friends, many of whom I am still close with and see often. But it was a big place with hundreds of employees, and I did not work directly with everyone there or know them all well.
The problem is if I go to the reunion, I know I will not be able to remember anyone’s name. And if there are no name tags, I am doomed. Because, well, it’s just that simple, I can’t remember names.
Never mind that it was more than 30 years ago when I worked at the newspaper, my name-recall problem persists even with people I met just last week. I remember their faces, yes, maybe even their job titles. But not their names. For some inexplicable reason, the names get erased.
Call me selfish, call me self-absorbed, call me simply inept and impolite. But I don’t do it on purpose. What was your name again?
With the weather warming up, my neighbors will be out and about on my block and beyond. I will run into them as I am walking to the local track or hanging out on the front lawn gardening — which is a euphemism for tending to the black holes on my grass. They will wave and call me by name and — even if they have lived across the street for 20 years — I will draw a blank.
My mind will start racing, jumping synapses, desperate for a moniker to cling to. Is it Julie? Colette? Maria? Oh, what is her husband’s name? Joe? David? No, that’s her son. Mostly I just wing it. It gets a little awkward when the other person keeps calling me by name, maybe as a test to see if I will respond in kind. Most of the time, I just say, “hon.”
I have tried the classic mnemonic device for remembering names: pick a characteristic, link it to the name. Moustache man reminds me of my Uncle Jim — his name is Jim. Woman who plays lacrosse, the sport my niece Katie coaches — her name is Katie. You get my drift.
The problem is that the brief encounter is often over before I can maneuver my way through this trick. I can be driving home from the event three hours later and burst out, “Alyssa!” to no one. The opportunity for redemption is long past. I swear I will remember the name before the next run-in, but that rarely happens.
I used to think my difficulty with name recollection was because I meet a lot of people in my work. As a university professor for 18 years, I taught more than 200 students a year. That’s 3,600 names to remember. As a journalist, I interview lots of people. As someone who leads workshops, gives seminars and keynotes, I meet hundreds of people once. And I forget their names as soon as I shake their hands.
It is not deliberate, it is not haughty, it is not because I think I am special. I don’t know why it is, but I recently forgot the name of someone I worked with years ago and her name was Michele.
One of my solutions is to immediately own up to my inability to name names. “I’m Michele, I know we have met, but I can’t recall your name.” That seems to go well until someone responds with, “We have known each other since kindergarten.”
Another tactic is to introduce the person whose name I forgot to someone whose name I remember. “I would like you to meet Caryn,” I say to the forgotten one. Usually the person responds with a self-introduction. And no one is the wiser. Maybe.
I notice not everyone is name- challenged. Maybe they are smarter than I am or have a brain with pipelines that are not mucked up with distractions.
Even my sons are better than me at names. Of course, I attribute that to my having decades more of name accumulation. For instance, Colin will say, “I ran into Mary Jones, do you know her?” My response is, “Does she say she knows me?” I can usually figure out who she is by deconstructing the answer, even if the name offers no clue.
No, I am not proud of my forgetfulness about names. And I try not to cringe when people forget mine — that would be hypocritical. These days I often stammer for other informational tidbits, too, like the titles of books, movies, songs, you name it. Because I can’t.
I have decided that being able to search online for a name is why Google exists. And now I have Siri on my phone. At least I think that’s her name. Or is it Sarah?Edit Module