March 10, 2011

Remember My Name

The only thing less polite than forgetting a person’s name is calling a person by the wrong name. I confess I struggle to remember the names of people introduced to me in passing. Generally speaking, once I’ve met a person twice I will retain their name, but otherwise I’m a bit of an idiot on the appellation front. Still, if an interlocutor’s name cannot be teased out of them in some cunning and round-about way, I think it better meekly to ask them to remind you than to take a stab in the dark and get it wrong.

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Hardest of all for yours truly is remembering the names of people I have never met, but whom I nevertheless have cause to refer to professionally. This morning, for example, I was trying to cite an authority on Victorian Britain. I could remember the title of the book in question; I could tell you who published it and when; I could even describe the cover to you. But I could not for the life of me remember the author’s name. Utterly frustrating! I’ve only used the book a million times. Still, I’ve never met the man, so the name eludes me. Worse than this, of course, is when students fail to look up the names of their authoritative authors and recall them wrongly in writing. I’ve always maintained that it is a matter of basic manners to get people’s names right, especially if you’re going to refer to them in a text. Needless to say, whatever profound and stunning argument is being attempted fails entirely when couched in such sloppy terms.

As a matter of habit, I try to say a person’s name to myself twice (silently) upon first being introduced, and to use the name soon after meeting. If I lapse in this habit, chances are I don’t know whether you're Adam or Ant. If anyone else has a good method, please share it.


  1. Most people who have no huge ego are fairly forgiving, especially if they determine that you're sincerely trying to remember.

    I would alter your observation thus:
    "The only thing less polite than forgetting a person’s name is [DELIBERATELY] calling a person by the wrong name."

    You haven't been in an awkward situation until you've stepped over that line of familiarity and used the diminutive of another's given name without permission.

    I've never done it, but a person I'd just met decided to use a diminutive of my given name -one that not even my closest friends or relatives use- and I reacted as though they had simply forgotten my name.

    I hope that I was gentle, but inside I was seething. There was no way that he could have taken the name I'd allowed him to use and arrived at what he ultimately said in good faith! He remembered my name but used a different one.

    I have almost decided simply to use a title and my last name when speaking to new people.

  2. Mr. Rush (? or are you Tom - please advise, given the context of the post),

    I hadn't credited people with being quite so awful. Wilful insults, however backhanded, deserve our contempt.

    I would suggest that politeness is not so much about reception, as it as about appropriate action. In certain settings anything goes, but the polite man will still do what is right. Hence I refer to the sensibilities of the namer, rather than the named. Not everyone will hold us to account and, as you say, some will be quite forgiving. But standards are ours to set. Call it a manly duty.

    Thanks for dropping by. Hope to see you around here in the future.

  3. I try to use that same tactic, too, although there are times I still manage to forget, especially in a large group. I find that when I speak with that person again and I'm at a loss for his/her name, I have to say, "Please remind me of your name again." I am sincere in my effort to relearn the person's name and I think it shows that I truly want to know them, rather than participate in polite chit chat before moving to the next person.

  4. Only lawyers and politicians really need to remember a lot of names. I am unsure how they do it. Some generals are supposed to have been able to do it. The rest of us can enjoy private lives and intimacy and deal only with those names which mean something to us for other than the accidental reasons.

    I refuse to keep up with all the people everywhere and make no attempt to ask or remember names, even if offered. Once you start with names, invariably you continue with remembering other things, and you are more and more occupied by less and less important things...
    Ignoring who other people are is necessary for conducting our own lives; and it is also proof against idle curiosity, chatter, and gossip. All we need, that I can tell, is more formality and less people to meet.

  5. I agree and would go so far as to say to spell it correctly, as well. My surname is more often then not misspelled, even when I have specifically told the writer how to spell it. It is an uncommon spelling of an otherwise fairly common name, so most revert to how they've always seen it spelled. Again, make the effort.

  6. Growing up with a name like Kyna, I'm very used to people getting my name wrong. Most of the time, if it's someone I won't really see much of, I don't even bother correcting them. An anthropology professor of mine called me the wrong name for a whole semester. I corrected her twice, and after that, I gave up.

    I've been called everything that starts with a hard C/K sound. And more. Some of the names kind of unmentionable ;)

    I try and remember people's names because of it. But if I don't, I always ask. It's more embarrasing to call someone the wrong name.

  7. I really admire those who can remember names. I am usually in good shape once I get it down. I use the same practice as you, but I try to say the introduced person's name out loud a couple of times.

  8. I was recently mistaken for a woman who was hired for the job I SO wanted last year. Ouch and double ouch.

  9. "Hey you" in a pinch always works. :-)


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