Bad With Names

I am bad with names.

This is a problem for someone who tends to change jobs every few days or so, if not more often, as I do. I am constantly meeting new people who I am pretty much guaranteed to see again, since we’re likely to be trapped in a small area together for 12+ hours, and to whom I may very likely have to go with questions or requests, sometimes having to get their attention across a crowded room. In other words, I cannot afford to instantly forget their names. This is also a problem when one goes to networking events, which I also do, where, of course, meeting new people, which usually means getting their names, is why you are there. I may not see them again for a while in those situations, which does make it a little more acceptable to forget their names, but not so much if I talked to them for, oh, 45 minutes the first time we met.

Luckily, networking events often involve exchanging business cards, and production jobs generally have call sheets. The call sheet has every crew and cast member’s name on it, and I usually get that emailed to me the day before and keep it on my phone. This saves my ass, and I know I’m not the only one, because on set, we all call it “the cheat sheet.” I even had a whole discussion on a job just last week about what iPhone pdf reader app I use so that I can have it readily accessible at all times, rather than having to scroll through my email inbox.

The only place where this falls down is with PAs, because unlike the 1st AD or the 2nd AC, they all tend to have the same title on the call sheet — so unless I have some recollection of their name from when they introduced themselves to me, it’s not going to help. This is kind of the worst, because PAs are the people who are usually treated like they matter the least by everyone, so it’s especially uncool to forget their names. I don’t want to be that jerk who “Hey you”’s every PA — especially when I’m asking them for help, which I generally am, because they are always on walkie and they’re often the only people I can ask.

Looking like you can’t be bothered to learn people’s names just isn’t a positive personality trait. Agency people and clients almost never introduce themselves to me, but that’s largely because they know they’re never going to meet me again — and I have to say, in that case, I largely agree: we’re not colleagues, we’re not going to be pals, it’s not worth wasting our time. Anyone else, though, it matters. Even most of the celebrities I work with do it, which is a bit strange. They tend to say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so,” just like normal people, despite that you both know that they are entirely familiar to you and so you obviously know their names. Not to mention that, since these people tend to be the stars of the project on which you are working, they are probably kind of the reason why you’re there in the first place. Like, you’re usually telling people you worked on “that show with Debra Messing,” or, “that Scorcese movie,” and everything you’re doing on set pretty much centers around them, so of course, yes, you’re fully aware that he/she is that person. For a long time, I was tempted to say, “I know” when famous people introduced themselves to me, I think I might actually have said this to a few people early in my career, like someone who thought she was cleverly cutting through the bullshit. But I eventually realized that it was actually nice when famous people introduced themselves, because introductions aren’t just about names, they’re about the social convention of taking a moment to formally meet somebody, and even if they are doing it self-consciously, and you can almost see on their faces (particularly if they’re hot) that they think they are making your day, it is nice when stars take the time to do that. The ones who go about their business like nobody around them matters except for the producer and director and maybe the AD and DP, because all the rest of us are just cogs, it’s definitely harder to see those people onscreen and still like them as much as you did.

In light of this, and the fact that I am not famous, I’ve tried a couple of techniques to get better at remembering names. I’ve seen some people say the name back right after they hear it, like “Nice to meet you ___,” and then try to use it again as often as possible. I get that this probably works, but I just feel too stupid doing it. I can’t get past the fact that it makes you sound like a used car salesman who’s getting too chummy too fast, someone who would immediately give you a nickname and call you that all the time (like when people I’ve never met before start calling me “Bets” right off the bat, which to me is a license to instantly dislike them). If I can I look at the call sheet right after I meet the person, because seeing the name written down is a big help, but a lot of the time I don’t have time to do that. I have also tried to just repeat the name to myself, but a lot of the time, I don’t remember to do that.

Because here’s the thing: I’m bad at this not because I think I’m too good to learn your name, but because on some level I think I’m not good enough. When someone introduces him- or herself to me, this is what’s going through my mind:

– Remember to smile, and try to make it a genuine and not a fake smile, even though I suck at smiling on command. Crap, I hope I don’t have food in my teeth.

– Say “Betsy” intelligibly so I won’t have to say it twice and they won’t think it’s “Becky,” which half of them inevitably will anyway.

– Am I visibly sweating anywhere?

– Try to shake their hand firmly enough not to give them a dead fish handshake, but without being one of those people who squeeze really hard in order to send some kind of message about having a firm handshake, because you don’t want to be one of those people.

– Ugh, my hands are always clammy, how can I shake without letting them touch my palms? And how dirty are my hands?

– If I have something in my right hand (which I frequently do, like a boom pole, or food, or wine if its a networking event, because I can’t get through one without alcohol), try to make the left handshake not too bizarre, while also possibly making a joke about that.

– Are they looking at my chest? Is that because of my breasts (is my shirt too tight?) or is there a stain on my shirt (ugh, why am I such a slob) or can they tell that I’m sweating?

With this cacophony going on in between my ears, is it any wonder that I can’t seem to hear the one piece of information that is supposed to be the point of this exchange? Not that this is meant to be an excuse, or even an apology, it’s more me pointing out another case of how, as human frickin’ beings, we are often the opposite of what we present. People who seem loud and cocky frequently act that way to hide the fact that, deep down, they have no confidence. Lots of folks who talk too much do it because they’re afraid of awkward silences, not because they think they have the most to say. Those who seem cold or distant tend to be protecting themselves because they are actually squishy and vulnerable. And people who are bad with names care too much about meeting people, rather than not enough.

So if we meet and I forget your name, try to remember this and not think less of me, and if you forget my name, I’ll actually probably be glad, because then we’ll be even.

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