Twice in the last week I’ve run into someone who called me by the wrong name Not a big deal at all, and yet, I felt embarrassed enough for both people that I had to think long and hard about correcting them or just letting it go.
It got complicated quickly; I had to do a rapid scan of my social network to consider the likelihood of encountering these folks again in a setting in which they would be made uncomfortable by using the wrong name again, or in which I would be made uncomfortable at hearing the wrong name and not responding.
It seemed unlikely that I would have the opportunity to see them at a distance, prepare myself, and approach saying something like, “Hey, I’m Peter, how ARE you?” I am not prepared to wear a t-shirt proclaiming, “Hey, My Name Is Peter – Don’t Forget!”, and if I were to get a tattoo, it would have to be something more meaningful than my own name (which I do, in fact, remember), like an entire spread on my back showing Odysseus slaying the suitors.
OK, that might be too much.
It isn’t easy to respond in the moment with the clarity a few minutes of reflection might afford. I often wish that I had rehearsed every conceivable socially awkward encounter so that I had a ready response. In this case, the jumble amplified as I considered two possibilities: If the speaker were to be embarrassed by my correction, he might decide it is easier to avoid me than to repeat the error. On the other hand, if I did not correct the speaker, I might decide to avoid him in order to avoid … well … whatever.
I should probably admit that I do not have the ability to read minds and have absolutely no idea of how anyone is likely to respond to anything. This impulse to protect another person, a person I hardly know, from embarrassment seems a bit shady. The impulse is to protect myself.
From what? From shame.
Why should I be ashamed of responding with my own name? I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m not inappropriately dressed, there’s no spinach in my teeth. The thing about shame is that it doesn’t care; it comes on quickly, hits hard, and tells me to move, duck, squeal, yell – anything but stand around feeling shame. Another thing about shame is that it does not have to be attached to the event that precipitates the response. Once shamed, forever capable of feeling shame.
The condition I describe is not healthy, and I and others have done a lot of work to see things as they actually are rather than things we might imagine them to be. For the most part, I summon a balanced response to most situations. But in the moment …
I silenced the voices in my head by recalling the rehearsal that I have done in order to meet moments such as these with some grace. I said what I had rehearsed saying.
“I am embarrassed to say that my name isn’t Paul.”
I can own my discomfort and indicate that the issue for me is tiny. The other guy can respond in any way he likes.
It works for me in other situations as well. When my pancakes are undercooked and slightly pasty, I can tell the waitron, “I’m embarrassed to ask the chef to slap these babies back on the griddle, but they just have too much slither for me in their present state.” If I forget a name, it is not the worst thing in the world to say, “I am embarrassed to admit that I have forgotten your name.” I think it indicates that I take calling the person by the name seriously; it’s certainly better for me than the weasely shuffling I would have to do to avoid admitting that the name was gone, gone, gone.
It is probably worth noting that these small statements of honesty don’t injure me at all; once I get past the conviction that I should always be right, anything is possible. Fortunately, the universe continues to shatter that conviction on a daily basis, so I have the freedom to admit whatever I need to admit.