We have worked out a system," the husband told me proudly. "When I introduce someone to my wife I say, ‘You know so-and-so, don’t you’? Or, ‘You have met so-and-so, haven’t you’?" If it is the former, then she knows she hasn’t met him before; if it is the latter, she has. This, he explained, was because of the embarrassment his wife causes by not recognising a friend or even someone they had met earlier the same week.
It was a heart-warming story, full of comfort and poor planning. Comfort because it was good to know that other people had the same sieve-like memory for faces and names that I have, and poor planning because knowing you know someone is no guarantee that you will remember her name.
Here’s a simpler system. I will ask my wife, or she will ask me, "You remember John (or Abdul or Mahesh)?" There can be only one response to this even if you have no idea whose hands you are shaking, "Of course!" The tone suggests what a dufus you are for even considering that your spouse might not remember.
I have been that way since university. Occasionally I would get myself out of a pickle by saying something like, "How foolish of me. Of course you are Thomas and not Venkat. You are so much better looking."
You can always work out tricks to remember names. All of us do it. One is to let the conversation go on till you stumble upon a clue that will tie everything up – the name of the person you are speaking to, his profession, the colour of his wife’s hair, his recent illnesses, the whole package. Self-help books tell us to connect a person’s name with a visual image. Thus, when you meet ‘Steve’, think of ‘stove’ etc. I once called a Steve ‘Mr Stove’, and haven’t used the technique since.
I realise more people have this problem than they are willing to admit. Recently I met someone I had known for over two decades, hugged him warmly and said, "It’s so nice to meet you Anil, old friend." He thought I was joking, perhaps it was a literary reference.
"Hey, I am not Anil, but you are right, Anup, it is indeed so nice to meet you again."
This time it was my turn to be offended. As some of you might know, my name is not Anup. The two of us had been calling each other by the wrong name for over two decades.
I never forget a name, Groucho Marx once told someone, but in your case I am willing to make the effort. Sometimes we don’t even have to make an effort.
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