The Name Game by Lisa Montagne

A sneak peak at Archive 405 Vol. 3: The Relationships Issue

What happens when you can’t remember a person’s name? The Name Game

I’ve been told that if I want to figure out my stripper name (and who doesn’t?) just use my childhood pet’s name in combination with the name of the street that I grew up on. The result: Kitty Rowland. Not half bad. If I wore the right outfit, some people might buy it if I introduced myself with “Hi! My name is Kitty Rowland.” The truth is, though, that even if my name were Kitty Rowland, it would not be any easier for people to remember than Lisa Montagne.

According to psychologist Jeremy Dean, there is research confirming that remembering names is difficult for everyone. Jill Speigel, author of How to Talk to Anyone About Anything, says that “everyone struggles with remembering names. When we first meet someone we’re taking in so much visually and emotionally. They say their name, but it’s up there floating in our heads.” Speigel adds that many common names, like Chris, Joe, Jill, or Amy, all “tend to blend together.” As a result, while we may recognize a person’s face the next time we see him, his name has taken a low priority in our brain’s information processing system—which is, it turns out, completely normal for just about everyone.  

In my world, there are a lot of college professors and dance instructors. These people have a fundamental relationship with the public. They depend on students and on audiences to make a living. This is a bond that should be honored; students not only invest a lot of time and emotional capital, they also spend a lot of money. It should be a part of the instructor’s job to make an effort to learn names. I count myself in this; I am a college professor who has to file another 100 names in my head every term. I am also a dancer who competes, performs, and goes social dancing—a lot. It’s not always easy, but I try really hard to remember names. However, I often hear my fellow college professors and dance instructors say the following: “I can remember faces, but I am not good at remembering names.” And, they say this with the conviction that this is a unique personal quality that only they—in all of the big, wide world—possess. So sorry! Despite what your mother and kindergarten teacher told you, there is nothing special about you—at least when it comes to not remembering people’s names. Almost nobody is good at it. Why do I bring this up, you ask? I want to ease your minds; I want to declare that it is actually OKAY if you do not always remember names. That should be really good news! However, what you should not do is ignore people just because you do not remember their names. I have spent years supporting the events of dance promoters and instructors only to have them stare right through me again and again like they have never seen me before. This is a real turn-off.

But, wait! There is more good news. In order to avoid turning people off, all that you have to do is be friendly, even if you cannot remember a person’s name. When I cannot remember a person’s name, I say, “Hi! It’s so nice to see you again. I’m Lisa!” The usual reaction is, “Yes, it is nice to see you, too. I’m John.” In that scenario, I have tricked the person into saying his name again, and then all is well. Only now and then will somebody say, “Yes, I know your name is Lisa; we’ve met.” To this, I just reply with, “Thank you so much for remembering my name. I like to remind people just in case they have forgotten. Would you remind me of your name?” In this scenario, I not only acknowledge that the  person remembered me, but I can also confess in a simple, direct way that I need him to repeat his name. In either case, it’s win-win. I can be friendly, and, hopefully, nobody feels left out. What I don’t do is run into the bathroom, or simply keep my head down and eyes straight ahead trying to avoid the person at all costs while I’m thinking, “Crap! That person was in my class last year, and I can’t remember her name,” or “Dang! I danced with that person last week, and I can’t remember his name—better just avoid him,” or worse yet, “If I ignore that person, he or she will never know that I am not good at remembering names, which is a unique flaw special only to myself.”

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a universal truth that everybody needs a community. However, for most adults today it is not always easy to connect. There are often no built-in communities that exist just outside a person’s door. As a result, many people are forced to find a community in a variety places, such as at work or at church. For me, it has always been dancing, and, so it follows that my dance community is really important to me. I feel a responsibility to make myself as accessible and as friendly as possible in order to be a support to, and not a drain on, my community.

One argument against being friendly no matter what is that it is not possible to know everyone. That is certainly true. And, I realize that not everyone clicks. If you think I’m a big nerd, and we just don’t have any chemistry, I get it. However, I am not suggesting that you become best friends with everybody. I most certainly am not. I curate my friends quite carefully, but being friendly and welcoming to those in your community will take you a long way. You most certainly do not have to be my best friend, but if I’ve taken your workshops, danced with you, and paid money to support your business, the least that you can do is smile and be nice—even if you don’t remember my name. I am totally cool with that.

Nametags certainly help, but I’ve always thought they were extremely dorky. That is why I’ve come up with this personal policy of being friendly instead of beating myself up about not remembering people’s names. I’ll leave you with this: I earned my graduate school nickname one night when we had a guest speaker. He was a prominent local education leader, as well as a really nice guy. That night I was in an especially mischievous mood (and a bit bored). When I was passed a nametag, I wrote “Bambi” on it with a little heart over the “i.” It’s my go-to nametag name. People have called me “Bambi” for an entire weekend workshop, none the wiser. When addressed as “Bambi,” I will reply without batting an eye. That night in my graduate school class, when it was my turn to introduce myself, naturally, I said that my name was “Bambi”—just like my nametag read. My friends looked kind of shocked and snickered, but the class meeting continued. Afterwards, the guest speaker came up to me and said, “Your name isn’t really Bambi, is it?” You caught me out, dude. “No, it’s not Bambi,” I confirmed—not that he would remember my real name the next time he saw me, anyway.


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