Hello, my name is…

by Michelle Gagnon

A confession:
You know those people who claim they never forget a face?
I’m not one of them.
In fact, I’m terrible with faces. Which wouldn’t pose that much of a problem, but I also happen to be awful with names.
My current line of work has only exacerbated the problem. As a writer, I probably meet a few hundred new people a year. Dozens of other writers, readers, and booksellers introduce themselves to me at conferences, readings, events. I make a valiant effort to to commit their faces to memory, even use mnemonics to try to remember their names. And all I end up with is a nearly overpowering desire to shout out, “Mayonnaise!” whenever anyone looks vaguely familiar.

I have a private theory that if my brain wasn’t completely clogged up with early eightie’s song lyrics, I’d be better at this. You should be able to erase files from your mind as easily as you do from your computer (heck, my computer erases files all the time, on its own, without any help from me whatsoever). Gone would be Duran Duran, and the next time I sat at the bar at Left Coast Crime, the name “Anne” would pop into my head when a woman approached.

Alas, despite my best efforts, that hasn’t happened.

Context is also problematic. Say I run into a former classmate at the grocery store. It doesn’t matter how many fourth periods we suffered through together. Without a blackboard and erasers handy, my best guess will be that she goes to the same gym. (I run into people who claim they go to the same gym as I do on a regular basis. It’s all the more puzzling since I rarely set foot in the place).

When I first dove into social networking sites, I was hoping they would prove the answer to my prayers. All those faces and names matched up to each other–perfect! I’d finally have a handy reference to skim before any major event.
And then what do people do? They post a picture of Bruce Lee next to their name. Or a photo of themselves taken in 1972. Or of their dog. Not helpful, people.

In two weeks I head to Bouchercon in Indianapolis. For those who don’t know, it’s one of the largest crime fiction conferences. Thousands of new faces and names to remember.
Some of the people I encounter I will have met before. Chances are I shared a drink with them at some point as well (I find that sadly, alcohol doesn’t help my faculties. Shocking, I know.)

I’ll arrive armed with a welcoming smile and jars full of gingko biloba, and will rummage frantically through my dusty memory files as they remind me that we sat next to each other at a banquet for two interminable hours a few years ago. I’ll pretend to remember, when the truth is I probably don’t (I’ve been to more than my fair share of interminable banquets). The name badges can be helpful, but at conferences they tend to function as de facto wallets/PR material holders, which means that nine times out of ten the person’s name is obscured. I also have yet to master the art of reading the badge without being painfully obvious about it.

I have a friend who has a trick to compensate for this. He always exclaims, “How long has it been!” as soon as anyone approaches him. Generally, this induces said person to provide some helpful tips that narrow the field. He also has a charming Irish accent, which glosses over the discomfort when it turns out they actually have never met. I could try to fake an accent, but I’m not very good at those either.

So, I’m asking a favor. If we have met before, please don’t take offense at the blank expression on my face. I really am doing my best to remember, but all I’m hearing is “Hungry Like a Wolf” on a steady loop.

14 thoughts on “Hello, my name is…

  1. Michelle, I have the same problem, although in my case I don’t hear song lyrics. I’m usually trying so hard not to make an ass of myself that I don’t pay attention to the person’s name.

    Btw, we did meet at Bouchercon last year (I even have a photo) but that won’t help you at all since I can’t go this year. Oh well.

  2. I’m okay with faces, terrible with names. I’ll know I’ve seen someone, and might even remember where, but I’ve forgotten people’s names while we’re still shaking hands. It’s embarrassing.

    I’ll be at Bouchercon and I hope I get a chance to say hello. We’ve never met, so there’s no need to be embarrassed when you don’t recognize me. I even promise not to pretend we have met, just to generate said reaction.

  3. Faces, I’m pretty good with. Names, I tend to remember AFTER I had a brief conversation and the person is already on their merry way.

    As a refresher, we met in Baltimore last year at B’Con. Plus, I have a current picture on Facebook. 🙂 (I was the one with the little Poe action figure in the name badge)

  4. I’m terrible with both too, Michelle. My coping mechanism is that whenever someone catches my eye that I think I should remember but don’t, I widen my eyes and say in a delighted-sounding voice,”HI, how are YOU-U-U-U?”, and then launch into random social chitchat, hoping that the person doesn’t notice I haven’t referred to them by name, or mentioned when we last met. It’s gotten me into trouble a few times, like when I’ve launched into breathless chatter with a complete stranger. They always seem happy to come along for the conversational ride, however.

  5. I used to try to fake like I remembered a name or face but I’m such a poor liar that I’ve given up even trying. I rely on the kindness of strangers as the famous line goes. You gotta hope the person is cool enough to realize you are trying and you are sincerely appreciative that they are there and chatting with you. If they aren’t? Well, it’s probably why you didn’t remember their name in the first place….

  6. Michelle, I have the same problem. It’s terrible at book signings. People ask me to personalize their copy, so I’ll ask them how to spell their name and they’ll say “P-A-T.”
    For Facebook, I have a photo of my book cover instead of my picture. That probably doesn’t help. But there’s currently 201 Julie Kramers on Facebook and readers who want to find me don’t know which is me otherwise.
    Bouchercon will be a sea of identities. See you there.

  7. I almost always remember faces and the majority of details of how I know the person, sometimes even the conversation we had and what I ate just prior. But names…not.
    So I have developed a system for remembering names. I use a descriptive nickname for the person to help spur me towards rememberance. These nicknames usual refer to a physical attribute or overt personality trait.

    For instance I might remember a person as something like these:

    Spandex Fitness Hottie
    Sparkly Dimple Smile
    French Roast and Stubble
    Stoned Tortoise Face
    Combo-Over Tuna Breath
    Gadunka-dunka Butt
    Perky Booby Chihuahua Girl
    Peanut Butter Pimples

    and so on.

    The down side is that this doesn’t always work as intended and usually I still don’t remember the name and may suddenly blush as I shake hands and remember only the nickname but barely stop myself from saying “Hey, Nasal Whiner Toad! And your wife, Sticky Toe Fungus Lips. Long time no see!”

    So maybe everyone would be best off to just wear a name tag.

  8. Julie,
    I like the P-A-T story. Maybe you could try this. If you give a talk before the singing, mention the horrible head injury you had from the fall/auto accident/mugging, and how it damaged your ability to match faces and names so that, in order to avoid embarrassing anyone else, you’ll not pretend to know anyone, but they should feel free to remind you without fear of embarrassing you.

  9. Michelle, I can SO relate. I have the exact same problem (it’s quirky movie lines instead of Duran Duran, but you get the idea). And I do it with my students.

    From last semester.

    Swear. (but it’s really not my fault…I AM trying, I REALLY am!)

    So now I tell them up front: “I won’t remember you. It’s nothing personal, it’s just a fault in my brain that I’ve had to come to grips with. I apologize, and I know it sounds cruel, but I’m just trying to prepare you for that time in 10 years when you go ‘NANTZ!!’ and I smile and nod and have absolutely no clue when (or if ) I taught you.”

    It doesn’t help, but it makes me feel better. Good luck at B’con!

  10. I’m so glad to hear that I’m not alone in this (and Basil, clearly you understand my inclination to shout out “Mayonnaise”! I tried your trick once. On the plus side, those people probably have no interest in ever speaking to me again).
    I promise to leave my name tag clearly visible in the future.
    Never fear, James, you’ll always be Jimbo to me.

  11. Kathryn, the big “How are YOUUUU” is my tactic as well. And then I smile and chat madly, hoping for some clue.

    When my friend Lou was alive, she recognized that panicked sound and she always remembered names and faces, so she’d reach around and say, “Well, hi, PAT!”,which would at least give me a name, if not context.

    Now I just smile a lot. And hope.

    And during my teaching days, I told my students I’d forget their names three times before I’d remember them. Or that I wouldn’t know their names until Halloween. I have students contacting me on FaceBook now, and half the time I’m puzzled as to who they are.

    But now I can say I’m old, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

    So, I’m sorry, who are you again? *smile smile smile*

  12. I always, always immediately say my name when I run into someone that I’ve only met a couple of times, because I have a strange dichotomy–I have a gift for remembering names and faces; and yet, have a face that people don’t remember. I’m not a martyr type, so have just found it easier to say my name right off the bat!

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