A few days ago I was walking through the mall when I heard my name being called by a voice I didn’t recognize. At first I thought it was directed at someone else, but I turned around and I saw a guy walking towards me with his hand extended. I shook it and realized that he seemed to know me but I couldn’t remember meeting him.
There are people out there who are good at remembering names but not faces? And those who are good at remembering faces but not names? Well, I’m good at neither. I’m one of those unfortunate people who are bad at both. Which is not good for someone who is socially awkward in most situations (namely, me). I’m bad at small talk with people I don’t really know, and adding the fact that I needed to pretend I knew someone just contributed to the mess.
Unfortunately, situations like this have become something of a regular occurrence in my life. I’d meet someone who I could not recognize, and they’d talk to me about a conversation or event that we had together with such detail that I knew I was going to be a rude prick if, in the middle of the conversation, I suddenly asked how I knew them. So, me trying to avoid confrontation at all costs, would usually just stand around and nod hoping that our conversation would end soon and that the other person would not realize that I was only pretending to remember who they were for the past half hour.
And soon, I realized, this kind of behavior is a mistake. Here’s why I think so: in a conversation, there’s a window of opportunity when someone can ask the other their name and how they know each other, without coming off as rude. This window is definitely within the first five minutes. After 15-20 minutes, it might come off as strange, but you can still do it. But after the conversation is over, this opportunity is out the window, as they say. This will make the next conversation not only very awkward, but if you ask their name, they will be very humiliated and you will be an asshole.
This is why now, particularly after starting college, I have quite a few acquaintances who I bump into often whose names I don’t know, but recognize because I know they are the people whose names escape me. There are some “mutual friends” that I hang out with, and who I sincerely hope never realize that I don’t even know what their name is. Sometimes I’ll give them a nickname to compensate. “Oh gosh, it’s that banana costume dude. I need to look as if I forgot something in my bag so it looks like I didn’t see him and I’m not ignoring him; it’s just I’m really busy looking for something super important in my bag.”
So going back to my mall story, I was standing there very awkwardly, hoping that i could find my way out of the conversation before he realized that I just wanted a way out of talking to him. I figured that I’d listen to him for a few more minutes before I excused myself and pretended I was meeting someone.
All this was going as planned until one of my friends walked along and joined our conversation. The polite thing, of course, would be to introduce them, and I would have done that, except the only problem was that you can’t really introduce your friend to someone you don’t really know, and that person was talking to you assuming that you knew who they were this whole time.
So of course, there was a moment of silence. I have never been stuck in a more awkward position. I was standing there looking at both of them like an idiot because I knew they were both waiting on me to introduce them. After another period of silence, I just decided to take a risk and introduce them.
“Hey, so this is my friend Mark.” I just pulled a name out of a hat and hoped that I was correct in my guesswork. “Peter? Are you sure? You look like a Mike,” I might have added.
Another period of silence. Then the guy looked at the ground, smiled, and introduced himself. I forced a smile back, and tried to look as if I knew his name the whole time, and that I just didn’t know how to make a good introduction. Which I realize makes me look rude and incompetent at understanding social cues. Apparently there is no winning option.