Failing the test of name recognition

Country Roads

The Chinese have an old proverb which says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

Boy, am I in trouble. I work hard to remember names and faces, but I mess up regularly.

Too often I find myself in a setting where I should know someone’s name but I just can’t recall it. It’s frustrating.

When I was still in the newspaper business a reader telephoned to share some information which resulted in a good news story. He stated his name at the beginning of the conversation but it slipped by so quickly I caught only the first name. I did not recognize the voice.

It troubled me, however, that he seemed to know me. While trying to listen to the facts he was sharing, I was also trying to recognize his voice. Before the conversation ended I had narrowed it down to someone who I knew by the same first name. I asked. I was wrong.

He stated his full name again but it still did not register. I apologized for my poor hearing and thanked him for his call.

The next morning I asked a co-worker if she recognized the name. Of course, she said, he is so and so and he works at such and such a place. Aw, gee! I knew him. I had chatted with him on several occasions at his place of work. What a dunce I was!

The information he shared the day before resulted in an interesting news story. As soon as the papers were coming off the press I walked a copy down to him and apologized for my lapse. Very much a gentleman, he brushed it off with a “no big deal.”

This was just another incident in a long history of messing up names. A week or so earlier I saw someone downtown and called him by name when I said hello. A few seconds later ̶ a few seconds too late later ̶ I realized he wasn’t who I thought he was. I hate it when that happens.

Even in retirement I try hard to avoid this embarrassment. Over the years I’ve read articles on name recognition and memorization and have tried to practice some of the more popular methods. The most successful, for me, is to repeat a name upon hearing it and then repeat it again during the initial meeting.

Another recommended method is word association. Upon being introduced to someone you are to think of an object which reminds you of that name. Remember that object along with the face, the theory goes, and you can remember the person’s name.

I’ve tried it with some success but always worry that I’ll mess it up. If I meet a Mr. Trout and associate the name with a fish, I might end up calling him Mr. Fish the next time I see him. Or, Mr. Carp. And then what do you do with a Mrs. Kyriazes or a Mr. Yodprasit?

A number of years ago I was impressed with a salesman who called me by name a year or so after the only time we had met. I commented on his good memory. He smiled and explained that he was simply using the “association” method of remembering names. He said he realized that my name is Dutch for “house man” and “since you’re as large as a house it was an easy association.” His memory was good but his tact could use some polishing.

In the news business you learn quickly that people like to see their name spelled correctly and hear it pronounced correctly. Having an unusual name myself, I can relate.

A longtime friend from Sioux City has called me “Arvurd” from the day we met more than 40 years ago. She and her husband left Iowa in 1981 and the last time we chatted she still called me “Arvurd.” It’s not a problem.

My last name is Dutch and Low German in origin; we use the Low German pronunciation (“Hyoos-man;” some of my kin say “Hoos-man.”) In 1974 we moved to northwest Iowa, where Dutch pronunciations (“Highs-man” and “Hoys-man) are much more common and we were frequently addressed in that manner.

After hearing our name pronounced in various ways at our (Dutch) Reformed church in Sioux City our 5-year-old son asked, “Dad, how DO we say our name?” I shared with him my philosophy: “Call me anything but late to supper.”

I hope the people whose names I mess up feel that way, too.