I remember you. Just not your name
You can tell I’ve forgotten, can’t you?
You’re too nice to point that out, of course, which in a way makes me feel even stupider. But I’m standing in the endless checkout line at the big-box retailer and you roll your shopping cart up behind mine and say, “Hi, Jan!” and I, startled out of wondering if I was supposed to get that one kind of toothpaste they have here, the kind my dentist told me to use, or do we still have a couple of tubes left from the stockpile we bought at Costco back when they still carried it, just like they used to carry those wool ankle socks that were so perfect but now Costco stopped carrying them too, why do they do that, and mine have all disappeared into the black hole where socks go, so I probably should check to see if they carry that brand here but that would mean losing my place in line and walking another quarter mile back to the quadrant of this store that may or may not contain those socks I want, and I think someone just said my name —
So I turn to you, and I recognize you immediately— I promise I do — and I give you a smile. A too-big, strained rictus of a smile, because I can’t come up with your name. “Oh my goodness! Hi! Fancy meeting you here!” I say, and follow that up with a weak laugh and some remark about how crazy these checkout lines are, and then I chirrup, “How are you?”
You’re not fooled
You make polite conversation, but I know I’m busted. Above my grinning mouth, I feel my eyes glazing over with quiet panic, my mind spinning like a slot machine that refuses to land on anything at all. I stare like a fish at the earrings you wear that I’ve complimented you on before when I’ve run into you — where? Where do I run into you? At the library? The local coffee place? Did we used to work together?
This goes on as we inch our trolleys forward until mercifully I reach the front and an automated voice announces, “Cashier number four, please.”
“Oops, that’s me,” I say. “See you soon!” Do I sound relieved? Was that the wrong thing to say? How often do I see you?
Just before I shove off toward the register, you reply, “Yep, probably next morning when I walk Moxie past your house!”
That’s it! Moxie, the Corgi puppy, the one who wiggles with unfettered joy when I call his name. You’re Angela, his owner. Of course I know you! You live on the next block over.
But I can’t say that. What I can say, now that you’ve kindly given me cover, is, “Right! Say hi to Moxie for me!”
I don’t say, “Say hi to Moxie for me, Angela,” because we both know what’s going on here and that would just be too obvious. My cheeks burn while I load my car with my purchases and drive home, planning how I’ll casually intercept you and Moxie as you stroll past my house tomorrow morning and make sure I call you by your name.
Does it help to know you’re not alone?
I forget people’s names a lot. And here’s the thing: I always have. Especially when I encounter them out of context, like running into Angela at the store instead of seeing her and Moxie (I remember dog names!) walk past my house. This is the kind of forgetfulness people kvetch about as they get older, but in my case it’s pretty much been this way from the get-go. Sure, I have a harder time coming up with the title of movies or TV shows than I did a few decades back. But names? I’ve always been a little hazy on names.
Does that make me a bad person?
I used to worry that it did. Was I just too self-involved, or too distracted, or too uncaring to bother recalling the name that went with the face, voice, and personality of people I met but didn’t interact with on a regular basis? Were other people just not important enough to me?
I didn’t feel that way. But why did I have such trouble keeping their names pinned on the bulletin board in my skull? And trying harder, as when being introduced to someone at a cocktail party and mentally clamping down on the sound of their name, felt like trying to catch a fish with my bare hands. When I followed the common advice to repeat a person’s name frequently as soon as I met them, I just sounded awkward and felt about as sincere as a used car salesman character from central casting.
I am relieved to say that the brain science on this is reassuring, according to Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist, author, and blogger. He published a 2016 piece, an excerpt from his book Idiot Brain: What Your Head is Really Up To for New York magazine’s The Cut, called “You’re Bad at Remembering Names Because There’s No Reason You Should Be Good at It.”
I felt better just reading the title. It’s a fairly long and, pardon the buzzword, granular explanation of why it is I can remember a person’s face with no trouble but can be stumped when it comes to their name, but the takeaway is that it’s not my fault. It’s a brain thing.
Faces have lots of information: facial shape, eye color, expressions, the way a person twitches their lips when they smile, a particular dimple or arch of the eyebrow. All this, plus the brain’s prewired knack for picking out faces among bits of information, make them easy to recognize.
Names, however, are arbitrary. They have very little to do with the person to whom they’re attached. It’s just a label, a random collection of letters and sounds that your brain assigns to short-term memory as soon as you hear it. And unless something extraordinary happens that causes you to encode that name in long-term memory, like you get in a raging argument with them, or you fall head over heels for them— or, like the stupid advice says, you repeat the name like a parrot within the first few minutes of meeting the person, some new bit of information is going to come along and shove that name right out of short-term storage.
Especially during a social or business occasion, when there are doubtless a whole lot of other social cues and factoids coming at you at the same time.
Burnett goes on to examine the difference in brain functions between recognition and recall — and the takeaway here is that even if you do manage to tuck the person’s name away in long-term memory, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to quickly and reliably recall it the moment you need it.
And this is not necessarily related to aging. At least, Burnett doesn’t say so in his article, so I’m going with that.
So, just because I can’t come up with your name when I run into you, especially somewhere out of context, that’s no reason to feel insulted. I remember you. Like Juliet says in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
How about if I just call you Rose?