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Prime Time | Sue Bruns: Forgetting people’s names – it happens to all of us

“Hi! How ARE you? I haven’t seen you in AGES!”

Conversations that open like this make me fearful. Sometimes they lead to fond reunions with people I haven’t seen in a long time; but other times, I find myself responding mentally and verbally in completely different ways. My mouth says, “I’m GREAT! How are YOU! You look GREAT!” while my mind wonders, “What IS your name? I can’t recall HOW I know you. Are you someone I worked with many years ago? The parent of a student I once had? A former student? Someone I knew in college? A former hairdresser, dental assistant, grocery store clerk?”

I know I’m not the only one who experiences this embarrassment. I console myself: “This doesn’t mean you’re headed for Alzheimer’s. Everybody forgets people’s names. Everybody has moments when they can’t put an identity to a face. You should be happy to have so many acquaintances in your life that you can’t even keep track of them all.”

In his later years, my dad, a well-known man in a small community, became a master of keeping a conversation going long enough to determine the person’s name and how he had known him. Or, if he couldn’t, he could at least convince the other person that he had. I am now working at the same skill.

I take advantage of name tags of clerks and other workers to help jog my memory at times, but it’s not enough. I sometimes wish I could pick up a program to refresh my memory about a particular person and his/her history/family/employment so that I didn’t have to trust the cobwebs of my mind to cough up some recognition before a conversation ends.

To spare others from the same embarrassing confusion that I sometimes experience, I try to approach people I haven’t seen in a long time with a line that will give my identity away immediately. “Hi, I’m Sue Bruns” usually works. I don’t feel badly if the person says something like, “Of course you are.” I would rather err on the side of sparing that person the discomfort of grasping for a name.

Sadly, I sometimes avoid starting a conversation with someone I haven’t seen in a long time because I’m not sure if it really is the person or someone who just resembles that person. I’ve had people mistake me for other people, too.

About two years ago, I took a watercolor workshop where I met Rita Albrecht.

“So, YOU’RE Sue Bruns,” she said. “People have sometimes mistaken me for you.”

I noted that, while we certainly weren’t identical, if one of us committed a crime, an artist’s rendering based on eye witnesses’ descriptions would probably fit either one of us. When Rita’s pictures started appearing in ads during her run for mayor, even more incidents occurred.

“Hey, congratulations!” someone said to me one day as I was leaving City Hall. Now, the context of City Hall would seem more fitting for a council woman or mayor, so my being there had obviously contributed to the person’s confusion. Not thinking of this at the time, however, and not having been called by any name, I simply looked at the person, whom I know casually, and said, “Thanks… What did I do?”

With that response, the speaker, embarrassed, apologized for the mistaken identity, but I was delighted. Whenever someone experiences the same kind of recognition confusion that I sometimes do, I have a deep appreciation for the situation. I want to hug the person, hand him a program that spells everything out, and provide comfort with a phrase like, “No problem. Happens to me, too.”

Now that Rita is the new mayor, I’ll think twice about correcting anyone who mistakes me for her. There could be some perks in being mistaken for the mayor! On the other hand, if a constituent approaches me with some complaint about the way the city is run, I can easily say, “Who do you think I am? Rita Albrecht?”

At any rate, in 2013, I am going to try to do a better job of putting others at ease in these confusing situations. I’m going to work at being more comfortable with introducing myself. Maybe I’ll even build up enough confidence to admit to someone, “I am SO sorry, but I just CAN’T seem to come up with your NAME.”

And if you should happen to approach me after not seeing me in several years, I will not be put off if you whip out your photo ID or your high school yearbook picture to start the conversation.


SUE BRUNS retired in 2010 as assistant principal at Bemidji High School after 35 years in education. She now supervises student teachers for Bemidji State University.