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Monday, May 31, 2010

He can't place the face, either....

By Dick Hirsch

I saw Norm just recently. It was at one of those occasional parties where friends gather to exchange greetings and share news. I won’t mention Norm’s last name because this column has strict privacy standards, but it’s quite possible you may know Norm because he is a businessman of some prominence, who is also active in cultural affairs.

Over the course of a year, I’d estimate that I encounter Norm at least a half dozen times in various restaurants and other public venues. He always greets me in a friendly fashion, as he did that evening. For openers, he said:

“Hi, Bob, how are things going?”

Now he doesn’t always call me Bob. The previous time I saw him was in a parking lot near t he HSBC Arena. We noticed each other as we hurried toward the admission gates. He waved first and shouted:

“Hey, Dave, let’s hope they can win tonight. Go Sabres.” He raised and waggled a clenched fist as he walked, apparently pleased that he had made contact with a friendly face. Then he disappeared in the crowd.

I report those experiences not to embarrass Norm, but to seek advice from any readers who may have had comparable experiences, or therapists who have been successful in counseling others with a similar problem. If given the opportunity to seek professional advice, I would ask for suggestions about the recommended response to being greeted by someone you know who uses the wrong name.

I must be fair and explain that Norm doesn’t always call me Bob or Dave. A few months ago he actually called me Dick, which is comforting, but that positive note is negated by the experience I had one evening last winter during an intermission at Kleinhans Music Hall. It was a large crowd and he was sipping a cup of coffee. He gave me that friendly salute, followed by a perplexed and vacant look, and called me nothing at all, an indication that he had drawn a complete blank and couldn’t match any name with my face.

An added consideration is this: he has proved himself to be an at least semi-regular reader, sometimes commenting on topics about which I have written. He does that in a knowing manner that indicates he really had read the column. That is not exactly a resounding testimonial to the vaunted power of the press, is it?

With that as background, I return to my immediate concern: What is the proper response? Do I continue to ignore his mistakes? Should I begin purposely calling him by a wrong name, perhaps Bernie or Tom, in hopes of shocking him? Or do I explain, in a calm and kindly fashion, that he has been referring to me by names other than my own? Maybe I should seek the assistance of a mutual friend, someone who knows both Norm and me, and ask the friend to try to moderate the situation by telling Norm of his memory lapses involving me.

I should explain that no objective observer would consider Norm to be a doddering fogey, the type whose forgetfulness could be ascribed to his advancing years. He appears to be vigorous and in complete touch with the world around him.

For years there have been advice articles suggesting methods that are supposedly helpful in remembering names. I presume Norm skipped over all of them, or else wasn’t paying attention. Often cited is word association, the strategy of linking the person with a familiar object or celebrity. I have tried that myself and discovered it is more difficult than you can imagine to establish an appropriate linkage.

Another allegedly useful solution is to concentrate when meeting a new person, focusing on the person, and perhaps repeating the name during that initial conversation. In such a case a person might say: “Glad to meet you, Bruce.” A little later the name could be used again once or twice, such as “What sort of work do you do, Bruce?” or, later, “Hope to see you again soon, Bruce.” I have tried that a few times over the years and received some suspicious glances in return.

Norm is just a convenient example; the inability to remember names is a widespread affliction, but the focus has always been exclusively on methods of memory enhancement. But what about the forgotten? Like so many others, Norm probably claims that he never forgets a face, but he apparently has made an exception in my case.


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