A few years back, my mother and I were out shopping on Commercial Street. We bumped into a girl who looked very familiar, and we had a short conversation. She left. My mother turned to me and asked me who that was. I had no idea. I didn’t know if I had studied with her in school or college, let alone remember her name!
Of late, this inability to remember names comes up often when I am facing a group of students at my workshop and I ask them to introduce themselves and then promptly forget their names, which makes the entire exercise redundant. I look at the sea of faces and then smile and admit that I may have forgotten their names. Some of them are quite sweet and repeat their names helpfully whenever they speak up in the workshop. But I can’t possibly expect everyone to do that. From a group of 40 to 50 students, I’m lucky if I can remember at least 2 names.
I’ve looked up about this online (where else) and the tips they offer are to repeat the name of the person loudly, or ask them what the name means (if it’s an unusual sounding name) or ask them to spell it out. I still doubt I would remember the names after doing all this but it’s worth trying. Another embarrassing situation I’ve been caught up in, is when an acquaintance at an event asks me to sign a copy of my book for them, and I don’t know their name. Most often these acquaintances are from social media like Twitter where some people don’t even use their own names but instead opt for handles.
It would help if I could at least remember the handles, but I’m awful at even that. In such instances, I look up and ask them to spell out their name, all the while feeling like such a fraud. And now that I’ve outed myself, I doubt I’ll be able to ask anyone how they spell their name without them thinking the worst of me. It also doesn’t help that I have pretty much an unforgettable and often unpronounceable name, which means that people don’t forget mine while I conveniently forget theirs. I learned today that it’s probably because of something called nominal aphasia, a form of aphasia where a person is unable to remember names. That doesn’t make me feel completely better but well, at least there’s a scientific reason for it now.
These days when we store names in our phone’s address book, we often tend to include a description of the people’s occupation (Like Rajesh Plumber, or Sunil Dentist) and that’s helpful so that we don’t end up calling the wrong Rajesh or Sunil. Recently, I didn’t realise I had the same two names on my phone and they belonged to two different people. One of these was a young cousin. I called up to talk to her and ended up calling the other person. The lady was surprised to hear from me because we were extremely casual acquaintances and I didn’t realise that she didn’t sound anything like my cousin right away. Then, it hit me. I’m talking to the wrong person. I couldn’t even pretend that I had dialled her number by mistake because I mentioned her name when we said hello. Suffice it to say that I had to pretend that I’d actually called to talk to her and then made some small talk which must have left her baffled no doubt.
Recently, a student in the US (I think) lamented that his professor said he could recite the names of all of his 120 students before the semester ended and exams began. If he made a mistake, the students would not have to write their exams and he recited ALL the names like a pro, much to their disappointment. Now THAT is my hero.
Originally published in Sunday Herald here.