Decades of experience have taught me that many people have trouble remembering names — at least, the names of people they’ve met just once or twice. Acquaintances.
With me, that’s just the beginning. My memory is so flawed that I forget not just the names of acquaintances and friends but also people I know really well (my boyfriend, my mother) along with the names of basic things like “fork,” “car,” “cloud,” “diamonds.”
In extreme cases like this, it is viewed as a medical condition: anomic aphasia or dysnomia, and for decades it has been the bane of my life, charging every social situation with an electric fence of anxiety.
That’s because a lot of people get offended when you forget their names, and nothing smooths over this blow to the ego. Some people try to commiserate: “Yeah, I’m bad with names, too.” My rejoinder: “I’m bad with the past.” The things I do manage to remember bear an inverse relationship to any usefulness: Avogadro’s number, the Fibonacci sequence, the smell of Chanel No. 5. But names — no. Never.
Then, one fine May day in 2007, something happened that made this all so much worse and yet so much better. Ironically, I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was in Union Square with a photographer and three male models, styling a fashion shoot on the controversial topic of wearing shorts at work. I kept needing to get the guys’ attention for various reasons, but of course couldn’t remember any of their names, and as the sun and my irritation mounted, I finally snapped.
“O.K., look,” I said. “Here’s how this is going to work. From now on, you’re all Steve. I say Steve, you all turn around.”
Immediately, I felt a stab of fear. Would all three now call their agents to report a psychotic fashion break? But no. All three thought it was hilarious, and started calling one another Steve and me Steve and the photographer Steve, so the whole world was Steve for a day. It made the shoot much more fun, and when it was done I thought nothing more about it.
But the next day, I realized this approach might have legs. What I’d stumbled across helped me both practically and psychologically, and did it in a way that seemed endearingly screwball, rather than sad and mentally challenged.
So I went with it and started calling everyone Steve, from relatives and friends I knew well to people I didn’t know at all. Why Steve? No idea — it just popped out. There are a lot of great Steves I might have been summoning up — McQueen, Hawking, Sondheim.
And I have since discovered that there’s an excellent Hollywood tradition of gals calling guys Steve when it’s not their real name. See Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?”)
and Barbra Streisand in “What’s Up, Doc?” (“Aw c’mon, Steve, you can tell her about us.”)
Almost all men responded really well to it. But while I can remember only one time in 12 years that a man said he refused to be called Steve (well, two if you count my father), I’ve had a very different experience with women.
Again and again, I’d try out a name with the same basic cultural valence as Steve: Rachel, Stephanie, Kelly, Sarah, Christine. Within a week or two, whatever name it was, a woman would say the following, as if reading off a cue card: “You can’t call me X, because I know a girl named X, and I hate her.”
I was rescued by “South Park.” Years ago an ex of mine and I had developed a habit of saying “Shut up Wendy” to each other (an Eric Cartman reference) so the name Wendy popped out one day quite naturally, and just kept going.
Why? Many women remember Wendy from Peter Pan with fondness; and it seems there are relatively few other Wendys out there to hate. The name peaked in 1970 as the 28th most popular name for baby girls, and has largely declined ever since, hitting a low in 2015 at No. 941, after which it vanished from the Social Security baby names index.
But she’s not foolproof. Once, a gal across the table at a dinner where I was describing all this heard me and piped up: “My husband’s first wife is named Wendy, and we hate her.”
My nonbinary go-to: Stevie, as in Nicks and Wonder.
Overall, as experiments go, Steve and Wendy have been an outstanding success. Sure, some people think it’s odd. But the overwhelming majority respond with visible relief and pleasure.
Here’s the thing, Not only does no one like remembering names, but no one really likes what names represent. That is, those awkward first moments of conversation with a stranger when you each of you lists your relevant data: name, profession, home location.
Skipping your name means skipping all of that — and the novel bond you forge by sharing in it means you can candidly go to topics that actually interest you both. It’s the linguistic equivalent of taking off your uncomfortable work shoes and pulling on your favorite sneakers.
Dozens of people now call me Steve, and hundreds of people have asked if they can steal the Steve strategy. It’s free for anyone to take. To ennoble what could seem a shallow, idiosyncratic gesture, I call this campaign the post-nominal revolution, hoping for a future when you will never have to use anyone’s name, ever.
You can call me David if you must, but I’d rather you didn’t. It’s a little personal.
By David Colman - NY Times