Name labels by chuttersnap

I’m not good with names.

You’ve heard that before, right? As someone, with a cringe of embarrassment, comes to a point in a conversation where it would be natural to use your name, and realises they can’t. You’ve probably said it yourself, as you realise you need to introduce your neighbour to someone, and despite having lived next door to them for three years their name has slipped your mind. You feel horrible saying it, don’t you? Our names are so central to our identities that saying you can’t remember someone’s name means you really don’t remember them.

I think I’ve always been bad with names, though it only really began to matter when I started teaching. This was – is – never about remembering individuals. If I forget your name, I probably remember lots of other things about you – your favourite colour, that you have a kid, that you said something really funny the other day… I may have known you for a day or a year, it doesn’t matter. I can picture you in my head, often in pretty clear detail, but all the same? Your name may well not be attached.

As a PhD student leading seminars for the first time, I found this quite stressful. For the first week I would have students wear name labels. The second week, I’d apologetically ask them to remind me. After that – it felt like something I couldn’t ask. Back in those days I often had to hand back paper copies of essays that I’d marked by hand, and thinking of having to do it made me break out into a stressful sweat. I came up with various strategies for this, for instance putting their essays in alphabetical order and asking students to come up to collect their essay when I called, instead of walking round the classroom to pass them back. Better they thought I was lazy than that I didn’t remember them!

When I worked at Oxford, this problem was much easier in a teaching context – I taught most of the time in tutorials, and for me remembering names has always been easier if I’m only introduced to one person at a time. And even if I forgot, in a one-to-one conversation you don’t actually need to say someone’s name, right? But college lunches were a minefield. There’s a strong cultural tradition at Oxford of inviting colleagues to lunch in your college and them reciprocating. This would mean I would often have to introduce said colleague to members of my college. Members I knew well, could ask about their current projects in detail, knew about their gardening habits or what their kids were up to – but saying their name filled me with dread. I would often say “have you two met?” and wait for them to introduce each other. Not much finesse, but less embarrassing than saying – I have seen you regularly for over a year and I cannot remember your name at this moment at all.

Why am I bringing this up now? Well, soon I’ll be returning to a little bit of face-to-face teaching (2 hours a week, with the rest online). I was wondering if my students wearing masks would make my brain even less able to connect their names to their faces. I was also thinking that one benefit of online teaching is that everyone’s name is right there. Hooray!

What was your name again? Image by Jon Tyson.

Everyone forgets a name now and again. Consistent name-forgetting, however, is called nominal aphasia. Reading the linked article, I felt a sense of relief. I’d never really classified my issue with names as a genuine issue; it’s generally seen as a quirk or minor inconvenience. I wouldn’t classify it as disabling in any way – but given it has made me feel uncomfortable in many situations over the years, it felt comforting to give it a name and recognise that it’s just part of the way my brain works, not a sign I haven’t been paying attention to people.

There are ways of teaching the brain to get better at remembering names. My students are probably familiar with ice breakers I give them where I ask them to tell me something about themselves – my most recent one has been “something really boring you did recently” as that’s quite a low-pressure and silly question! It works at breaking the ice but its real function (sorry, students) is to serve as a mnemonic device for me. This can work quite well. But honestly, it’s extremely likely that at some point I will not be able to recall their names. I’ve decided that this year I’m just going to explain this, and tell them that for my brain at least, their face is much more interesting than their name. That if I glitch on what to call them, it’s not because I don’t care. That they can help me by reminding me without a fuss. I will try to do this socially, too, assuming I get to a point where I’m seeing friends outside of Zoom (with its handy name captions!). And I’m sharing this in case by reading it you realise “wow, that’s me, too!” It’s not a huge problem to have for most of us, but it can be an uncomfortable one. Perhaps by sharing it we can feel less embarrassed.

(FYI, my name is Rachel. It’s ok if you forget. Though please check before you introduce me at a conference… Ask me how I know!)