What’s in a Name?

We’ve all been in this situation (on one side or the other) more often than we care to remember: you’re at some gathering, say a party, and you see a face you recognize. And that face obviously recognizes you. Usually by this point you’ve made eye contact, so there’s no escape. The person approaches, says, “Hey there, how’s it going?” and proceeds to strike up a conversation. So you try to play it cool, but the whole time you’re panicking because you can’t remember what the heck this person’s name is. Okay, and let’s face it: we all know when the person we’re talking to is scrambling through their memory bank, trying to figure out who we are before we catch on. So even as you do your best to control the situation, you know the other person knows. It’s just awkward, there’s no way around it.

And I’m not sure which is worse: to be the forgetter or the forgotten. The forgotten appears to have all the advantage here, even if it can be somewhat demoralizing. Just take it with humor and a dash of graciousness, and you can quell most of the embarrassment. The forgetter on the other hand is entirely at the mercy of the forgotten. Suppose the forgotten has just had it with being overlooked? Suppose he or she is having an off day, and this is the last straw? Suppose you’re the fourth person they’ve spoken to at this event who can’t remember who the heck they are? The list of possibilities goes on and on. Because despite his apparent advantage (at least in the immediate situation), the forgotten obviously has the more painful role in this transaction. It’s frankly humiliating to be forgotten. Nothing says “Sorry, you’re not really worth my time” like forgetting someone’s name. Birthdays? Fine. Job? Okay. But the name? That’s pretty basic stuff.

And then there’s the question of honesty. Do I (as the forgetter) take the bull by the horns and come right out and say, “Look, I’m so sorry, I am drawing a blank on your name”? Or do I try to coast to a decent stopping place in the conversation and then escape on whatever vague pretext in order to save face? As the forgotten, should I swallow my pride and just say, “I’m so-and-so, by the way,” to get it over with, or is it better to let the other person stew and struggle without pointing out their embarrassing lack of memory?

Even worse is forgetting the other person’s name right off the bat. I attended a party last weekend where I knew very few people, so it turned into an evening of introducing myself, exchanging the same information with person after person: name, occupation, location, and (if the other person hasn’t come up with a plausible excuse for escape) a little bit of personal history and interests. Then on to the next stranger. And at least twice I found myself five minutes into a conversation with someone when it began to dawn on me that I could not remember this person’s name. I can feel my smile freeze on my face, and I start nodding mechanically as they speak while I wrack my brains. Think, stupid. You just met this person two minutes ago. Name…starts with a…B? T? One syllable? Rhymes with… Sometimes it’ll come back to me, but more often than not it just doesn’t. This person will forever after be “the dude with glasses who works in financing” or “that girl who’s studying theology at the JP II Institute,” and obviously I can’t greet them that way when I run into them at future parties or on the metro.

Sometimes I get lucky. A friend of mine may come up to join the conversation, so I finagle a halfway introduction. To my friend I say, “Hey, so-and-so.” To the new acquaintance whose name I’ve forgotten I say, “This is my friend so-and-so,” and then I leave it up to the new acquaintance to introduce him/herself. And then I make sure the name is seared in my memory.

There’s obviously a reason Dale Carnegie includes remembering another person’s name in his tips for “winning friends and influencing people.” It’s so pleasant to be remembered. I’ve battled a certain level of shyness my whole life, and while at this point I know both sides of this unpleasant situation quite well, I’m far more used to being the forgotten. It sucks, if I may be so blunt. We all want to know that we’re important enough to leave some kind of a mark. We all want to be…well…loved, when you get right down to it. Our name is the first offering we can make of ourselves to those around us. “Hi, I’m so-and-so” isn’t just a conversation starter–it’s the first self-gift in this relationship, whether the relationship grows into a true friendship or ends after this first conversation.

I say all this, and I’m still a repeat offender when it comes to name-remembrance. So please, friends, I beg you: tips on remembering. I’ve been told the old, “repeat their name” trick, but that never works for me. Other ideas or tricks you use in these situations? Any name-forgetting moments you’ve had, or experiences of being forgotten? How do you deal?

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4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. The blind introduction-with-another-person thing works well. I’ll often bluff my way through a situation, not letting on I don’t know the person’s name by throwing out other details I remember about them (“How’s life at the Department of Justice?” etc.) and hoping one of THEIR friends comes up and says “Hey so-and-so” to remind me of their name, or even if they don’t just say, “Take care! I’m going to get some drinks” before they figure it out. I think the only way this can work is if you refuse to feel guilty about the fact you don’t remember their name: there are LOTS of people and things to remember, it’s just part of life that some of them go by the wayside in the memory bank. Also, and I hate to admit it, but FACEBOOK is actually really helpful for remembering people (both before and after you forget them). If you add someone as a facebook friend, or even see them on an event invitation, it really helps cement the face-with-a-name deal. 🙂

  2. This happens to me alot. I say just accept your humanity and that fact that your forgot and ask them what their name is. Yes, I feel like a dufus when I have to do that, but in the end, I think people appreciate the honesty and the fact that you really do want to learn their name (otherwise you wouldn’t have asked). If they don’t (we run into alot of different people in northern VA), then that’s their problem and you can move on to talking with the next person whose name you may or may not remember.

    I think in the long run it’s better to just be honest and make light of situation.

    • I concur with Marvin. Almost always (I think 95% of the time) I am the forgetter. I think it’s because I’m big, with red hair, and have a deep voice, almost everyone remembers me. But I meet a lot of people and I don’t have enough name capacity to remember everyone. I think it takes three (3) conversations to full engrain someone’s name for me.
      Laugh it off if your forgotten, and be contrite, but not ashamed if you are the forgetter. People do understand and, beleive me, it’s not because I don’t care about the person.
      Ultimately, it’s not the end of the world! (or even of a budding friendship)

  3. I’ve experienced this more times than I care to count in the past year and a half. Moving from a smaller city, where I knew nearly everyone in the circles I hung out in and they correspondingly knew me, to a place where I literally knew NO ONE has been humbling at times, and has included more than a handful of embarrassing situations. My favorite is when I don’t actually recognize that I’ve met a person before, go up and introduce myself with “Hi, I’m Janet, I don’t think we’ve met before,” and they reply with, “Actually, we did, at such-in-such a social event 8 months ago.” Argh! More than likely, I probably met that person, somewhat briefly, in a room full of 50 other people I never met before.

    When I first moved here, I actually would go home and write down the names of the people I met that evening in order to stand a chance of remembering them at future events (as you can tell, remembering names is not my strong suit). I’ll be honest, there are times were I crave the small town atmosphere again, where everyone knows almost everyone, and there are just a handful of new people at any given event. It’s comfortable, kind of like being at home among family. But then again, the large number of people, with such diversity and variety, is what makes D.C. the vibrant city it is, and I’ve been blessed to meet so many great people who share my faith and values (as well as have a sense of adventure!) in the past year and a half. It’s definitely worth the embarrassing moments!

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