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How Bad Is It to Forget Someone’s Name?

Jerkfaces can take heart knowing that no one’s life is going to crumble if you fail to remember their favorite song or what they ate for lunch. Being forgotten had little to no bearing on people’s self-esteem and other measures of self-comportment, and even the most pronounced changes were matters of fractions of scale points. Moreover, as King points out, research has shown that people generally consider lives fairly meaningful to begin with.

But Ray’s minute findings leave open the possibility of a cumulative impact. Like other small stressors, being forgotten could take a toll on people who deal with it often—especially if it coincides with other elements of discrimination. Ray’s earliest inspiration for looking into forgetting, he says, came from witnessing a professor constantly mix up the names of two of his “non-white” graduate students. (Ray refrained from providing identifying details in his account.)

“Your relationship with your supervisor is a big deal. You work with that person for years,” Ray says. “[Being forgotten] is an important and layered experience. It can lead to these ‘funny, haha, I forgot your name at a party’ stories. But it can also lead to more serious, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe you did that’ crushing moments.”

There’s a lot left for researchers to unpack. Charles Stone, a psychologist at the City University of New York who specializes in memory, ran through a laundry list of nuances and variables likely to shape how being forgotten is received, from how pertinent the thing forgotten is to the relationship between the forgetter and forgettee, to the power dynamic between the two. He also notes that the incongruity between remembering and forgetting could be what’s damaging, rather than forgetting itself: If two people realize they both forgot each other’s names, there might be no bad vibes, or the pair could conceivably even feel closer.

Ray’s work reveals nothing of forgetters’ actual feelings or intentions, only how they’re perceived. It’s reassuring that participants tried to give forgetters the benefit of the doubt. “Forgetting is the rule, not the exception,” Stone says. “We forget most of our past. Think about how many days, how many hours, how many minutes everyone’s been on this planet.” The big question for scientists isn’t why people forget, he says, but why people remember certain things.

The scope of forgetting can make even the most boring social interactions poignant. There’s something miraculous about any two people’s lives intersecting among all those days, hours, and minutes, whether they bump into each other on campus or sit down for coffee. Sharing a moment with someone is a reminder that we’re all here, that connection is possible. At least, until Jerkface forgets it.

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