Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Recalling the Names of Acquaintances

As age creeps up on us, just about everyone has a little trouble recalling the name of old acquaintances, particularly if they come upon us unexpectedly. Reactions to this affliction vary tremendously, with some folks concluding that Alzheimer's Disease is surely here already, so they run away and hide. Other seniors are more self-confident and unashamedly go ahead with little strategies to cope with this problem. When you sort things out, you tend to find that shy and retiring people withdraw from social contacts because of self-consciousness, whereas bluff, bold extroverts plunge ahead with strategies they have devised to cope with matters. Neither one of them can remember a lot of names. The extroverts are usually very happy to share their secrets; a whole social group can be transformed by one loud, happy, unashamed coper sharing his techniques.

The late Doctor Francis C. Wood, formerly Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania after whom a number of professorships, institutes, and lectures are named, once made a little speech at a reception held at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. "When you see somebody at a party whose name you ought to recall but can't, just stride right up to him with your hand held out. Just say your name like a gentleman, like 'Fran Wood," and he will invariably grab your hand gratefully and tell you his name, like 'Jim Jones, Fran. How are you?' After that, you'll get along just fine."

This isn't a medical matter at all. It's a matter of self-confidence and learned techniques. Dick Maas, who is a resident of the Beaumont CCRC in Bryn Mawr PA, was recently proud to describe his own technique in the Beaumont News as follows:

"Let's start with the obvious conclusion that one can't remember something one didn't hear in the first place. Introductions often are given in a social situation, which usually means one is surrounded by loud noise. Furthermore, the person doing the introduction may have a soft voice or poor diction.

There's hope, however. One can employ a little trick that's socially correct and psychologically useful: Shake hands with your new acquaintance! Hang on until you hear the name clearly and correctly. If necessary, hang on and say, 'I didn't get your name. Would you please repeat it?' Even ask for a spelling if need be. Don't release the hand until you've heard it correctly and repeated it back."


It isn't always necessary to use a name or shake hands. In Haddonfield where I live, the custom grew up years ago that everybody says, "Hello" or "Good Morning" (Good Morning preferred) to everybody one meets on the street -- before lunch. There's no hesitation about it, that other person is going to say "Good Morning," so you might as well get ready for it. Of course, it's true that some people don't know what to do with themselves, and retreat back into their shells, awkwardly trying to pass you by without acknowledging your greeting. You can either shrug your shoulders and assume that repetition will gradually bring that newcomer around in a few days or weeks, or else you can refuse to let them do that to you. Step in his way and say it louder. To get away with this you have to be prepared to say something about the weather or your dog or the morning news, which is a pleasant way of saying you weren't belligerent about it, just showing them the way things are done in Haddonfield. Pass yourself off as uncontrollably extroverted. And be sure to smile. This sort of custom is a matter of population density. Up in Alaska a trapper who passed within a mile of another trapper's cabin without saying, "Howdy" was inviting a knife fight about the insult. In New York's Times Square, by contrast, a pedestrian is within walking distance of two hundred thousand people; greeting everybody is an impossibility. Which leads me to a personal story.

At the Pennsylvania Hospital we had an orderly named Sam who was deeply religious and went around handing out religious tracts. He was pleasant and did a lot of work, so no one interfered. One day, I was walking in Times Square with my wife on one arm and my mother on the other. Looking ahead, I could see a crowd had formed around an orator on a soapbox, who was none other than Sam. I said nothing, but as we drew closer, my mother exclaimed about it and maneuvered the three of us up to the ringside to see the excitement. Sam stopped talking to the crowd, and shouted, "Hello, Doctor Fisher". So, of course, I replied, "Hello, Sam"; and the three of us kept walking down the street. After we had gone two blocks in puzzled silence, my mother abruptly stopped walking, stamped her foot, and said, "All right young man. Just who is this Sam?"

Originally published: Monday, January 17, 2011; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2019