Friday, June 22, 2012

I will remember you

The reverse of this problem used to plague me, and still does to some extent, although the years have killed off some of the brain cells in question, or Facebook eliminated the subconscious need to do this: I used to remember the faces and names of everyone I met, and where I knew them from. Were you in my Hebrew school class in fourth grade? Hippie summer camp? Had we once briefly spoken at our 3,000-student high school? Whoever you are, I'd remember you like it was yesterday.

While it can be frustrating not to remember names (ahem, teaching large non-lecture classes - why my high school physics teacher called us by number, not name), in social (and, if you're not a grad student, I hear, professional) situations, it can often pay to seem aloof. That you've remembered a face and a name will be taken to mean that you've been thinking of this person since fourth grade, that they made a really profound impression, that you have in fact been waiting by the proverbial phone since the fourth grade for (fictitious) Lacey Zimmerman to come back into your life.

Lacey's forgotten you, we can imagine, because you're unimportant to her. Therefore that you've remembered her must indicate that you have disproportionate interest, that she made quite the impression. But having exceptional names-and-faces memory, at least on a conscious level, doesn't mean this, because you're remembering everybody's face and name, including - indeed, primarily - people you hadn't thought about in years, until there they are on the subway across from you. (Now, alas, if I see and remember Lacey, it's because Mark Zuckerberg wants me to know what she was up to last weekend. If she isn't on that site, she'll at most look vaguely familiar.)

So what does it all mean? If you remember names, is it because you on some level imagine that in every last situation, you're the peon to the other person's Pretty Big Deal? Is it that on a subconscious level, even when you're interacting with people definitively below you in whichever official or unofficial hierarchy, you conceive of yourself as an underdog? Or, to put a more positive spin on the same interpretation, is it that you think everybody is important? Is it just... good memory? The same trait that makes it possible to pass the kind of exams that ask for heaps of rote memorization? Whatever the case, if we're going to cover the plight of [yes MSI, forgot the rest of that sentence, thanks!] those who forget, I'd like that of those who remember all too well covered equally.


Miss Self-Important said...

Cliffhanger post?

I remember names and faces b/c I think people are strange and interesting. But b/c the people whose names I remember may not agree with this view and would instead say that such remembering is creepy, I often pretend to have forgotten. I also Google people all the time and pretend in conversation w/ them that I haven't.

Phoebe said...


Careless bloggery fixed, thanks for noticing!

"I also Google people all the time and pretend in conversation w/ them that I haven't."

Yes. I think getting into that habit - and we all have, face-rememberers and face-forgetters alike - makes it easier to be automatically, default blasé about meeting "new" people.

PG said...

I think college was the one time when there was some plausibility to Big Deal People are better-remembered, because I wrote for (and thus felt obliged to read) the student paper's non-sports pages, and so frequently saw the names and photos of the same dozen people who ran student government and the major organizations. Their names also were often in university-wide emails. However, these student politicos tend to be the same sort of people who pretend to remember every potential voter, so no aloofness -- if anything, gushy hugginess.

I suppose there's some adult contexts in which similar things might occur. Like, society pages? And since you can be rich/famous without anyone's voting for you, you can do the aloof there.

Facebook has helped me connect names and faces a little better, but since the ones I feel worst about missing are various distant relatives and family friends, and I don't want to have them in my Facebook list, Zuckerberg's no help there.

Phoebe said...


There's no debate whether bigger-deal people are better-recognized. (Witness the lowly first-year grad student meeting an important prof for the second time. For one, the meeting is etched forever, for the other, not so much, and a reintroduction is in order. Also celebrities, major and, as you note, minor.) The issue is that in cases of equals, or in which the person whose name is remembered is actually less of a big deal in whichever context than the one whose name is forgotten, there's nevertheless a dynamic set in place once a name is remembered or forgotten. This puts a burden on those with a great memory for faces and names, who must find ways to seem as though they're meeting someone for the first time, when they perfectly well know they're not.

Also, MSI, I hear you re: finding people "strange and interesting." But no one, in the moment, gets that this is in a could-make-a-character-for-a-novel way, and not a wow-you're-awesome-I-wish-I-were-so-cool one. Which, now that I think of it, might be for the best.

Miss Self-Important said...

I do specifically think of potential characters in novels, actually.

Withywindle said...

Bill Clinton remembers everybody's name and face; a useful political skill.

An astonishing number of people remember me. I think it's not because I'm influential, but because I'm funny-looking.

Flavia said...

I too have a freakishly good memory not only for names and faces, but (more especially) for complicated personal details and life narratives--including narratives that involve events I never participated in and people I've never met. This long predates Facebook, and it's definitely not limited to people who are/were popular or influential. But when someone's name comes up or when I run into someone I haven't thought about in years, it's like I've pulled a shoebox off a dusty shelf and discovered a jumble of stuff inside.

These days such details mostly involve my friends' lives, so it's not particularly awkward when I'm revealed to have oddly detailed recall about the minutiae of their lives--and the lives of their friends from grad school or from grade school. But I also sometimes do it, without thinking, when I run into someone I barely know and haven't thought of in years ("Oh! I remember in English 301 you had this great story about a trip you and your roommate took. And I think you were dating George Farrell at the time? Yes, that must be right, because you lived in stairwell C junior year. I remember because my friend Susan...") And, uh, yeah. This isn't really socially acceptable.

PG said...


If there's no reason you'd remember the person other than having a good memory, that person is simply enjoying the delusion of self-importance, which I'd generally categorize as another relatively-harmless delusion. Consider it your good deed for the day: boosting the self-esteem of someone who otherwise has no extraordinary bases for feeling good about him/herself.

I appreciated seeing someone at my college reunion recently who remembered me from a single English class in our first semester. I didn't do very well in the course, but she said she remembered me from my contributions to discussion. That's not really a quality I get to exhibit in post-academic life, so it was nice to hear. (Even if what she actually meant was "Who could forget that girl who never shut up?")


I'm great at remembering narratives, but often don't remember the name of the people in the narrative. This is really socially disadvantageous because I have all this memory space taken up with stories of people whose names I don't recall, so when I see them I can't be like "Oh, [Name], and did you ever manage to close on the apartment?" because I can't remember the Name.

Phoebe said...


Glad I'm not alone! In a decade, the nation will be in awe of the ensuing novels.


Too bad I lack the other traits needed in a politician: a sordid past or secret life, an ability or desire to pretend to be folksier than I am, etc.

I take the word of commenters/bloggers I haven't seen re: their own appearances. My own experience is that because half the women in New York look just like me, I'm not a name many will remember for distinctive appearance. In another locale, it might go otherwise.


I do this too! It can be a great way to bond with others who do this, or to (inadvertently) flatter those who enjoy their lives/stories being remembered (this is assuming an interaction where it's presumed you know each other's names, and thus where the person wasn't unnerved you knew them in the first place). But yes, if it's surprising you even remember Lacey's name, that you remember the huge crush she had on that other guy in your Hebrew school class, and that she always brought Milky Way as a snack, she might not want to hear about it.


That's a wonderfully non-neurotic approach. But in actual situations (and I ran into not one but three former high school classmates this afternoon in NY), power dynamics a) matter to people, and b) often aren't so clear-cut. When you remember Lacey, but Lacey's forgotten you, you feel like Lacey is cooler/more important than you. Thus the need to pretend - as MSI confesses to doing - to not remember those you perfectly well remember. And it's not even just the neurosis, power-dynamics aspect. It's also that you don't want to creep people out by giving them the impression that you think of them in particular, when it's really just your not-at-all-discriminating memory at work.

Also - so much depends on context. If someone I don't know well comes up to me and says, assertively, that they know/remember be, and that person seems confident, and unconcerned with whether they're remembered, which is what the reunion situation you describe sounds like, neurosis might still enter into it, but not in the way I'm describing. (More like, what odd thing did I do that made me so memorable?)

Meanwhile, what I'm describing is two people randomly meeting on the street, at a party, whatever. You see Lacey and think, 'there's Lacey Zimmerman who sat three seats away from me in Ms. Cohen's fourth grade Hebrew school class, and who always twirled her hair.' Lacey, meanwhile, does not even recognize you, but once she sees you recognizing her, she figures you two must know each other, so you both approach. The ensuing dynamic puts you in an awkward spot, unless you pretend not to know who Lacey is. Unless, of course, what you remember is that Lacey picked her nose in class, or something otherwise unflattering to her.