What did you say your name was? [Commentary]

An English professor confesses that he can remember a face, but not a name

December 19, 2013|By Sean Hannigan

My wife thinks I'm incredibly rude because I never introduce her to anyone I'm talking to. She comes up, listens in, waits on the introduce-me square — and I know what she's waiting for, what they're both waiting for — but there's nothing I can do, and I always end up feeling like, and seeming like, a jerk.

There is a syndrome where you can't remember names. Two percent of the population has it, and while my case may not be the as severe as some, I'm on the spectrum.

Of course I have no idea of what the name of this syndrome is.

But it's real. I heard it on NPR.

See? I remember some things, but when I meet you my brain does not care what your name is. My brain cares about what you have to say and how you look and how you act, but it doesn't want to know your name. I do, but my brain doesn't.

I can't tell you the names of all the people who have been mad at me because of this. I wish I could, but I can't.

I remember you. I just don't remember your name.

I do try, but then I find I'm doing all these mnemonic brain tricks, and then I totally miss everything you just said, and I'm even more of a jerk.

Even in the future when our brains are directly linked to the Google, I don't know if even then I want to interrupt our moment just so I can attach your label to you.

Besides, what do you care what your name is? It's a tattoo picked out by your parents. I don't even know your parents.

And then if your parents inked on to you a hard to say name, I can hear your syllables but my brain just bleeds them all together. And this is where the jerk part comes in because there's some sort of social rule for how many times you can ask someone to say their name.

We were on vacation with a friend, who brought a friend named Lastania. That's a lot of syllables for one name, and apparently I had been kind of slur-blahing my way through. But after two-and-a-half days of that everyone was mad at me, and so after many tries and much coaching, I finally mumbled her name close enough for them at least not to be mad.

The next morning I completely forgot how to say it, but I couldn't ask for help again. Tis the shame of my condition. Seems no one has the patience of Helen Keller's teacher, whatever her name was.

On the other end of my spectrum, my brain has no plan for when a name sounds like another name, and I mean you Rod, Rob, Bob.

I have a cousin, and I still can't tell you for sure if his name is Greg or Craig. I like him. We're buddies. I once worked for his landscaping crew an entire summer where there was a guy working with us named Steve Lynch who we called Steve Lunch because his wife packed him these multi-course Italian lunches supplemented by two Peanut Butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches for in between. His name I remember.

But with one of my favorite cousins, a good guy, I still find myself grinding that first letter and then emphasizing the "r-egg."

I sound like Scooby-Doo.

As a teacher, I do about as well as I do in real life. I remember most names, after a while.

But there's always a Bermuda Triangle of student names that disappear. After a while, no matter how much they want a good grade, they still get mad when I keep saying, "Oh, you're Cameron."

I love literature. I teach it, but I can't always remember the names of authors or characters. For years when asked who my favorite author was, I'd have to say, "That Russian guy who wrote Crime and Punishment."

But I remember stories. And when I'm getting to know someone, I like to think I'm getting to know their story, and they're getting to know me. I remember them not based on some arbitrary name, but based on something more real, like, do they laugh at my jokes.

It's like that guy from Shakespeare said, a flower by any other name still smells. It's a flower.

And so are you, whoever you are.

Sean Hannigan is an English professor at Stevenson University. His email is hannigansean@hotmail.com.

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