Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:
I’m in my fifties, but this problem started maybe a decade ago. I think
it is exacerbated by age, but also by the fact that I taught in adult
college students for ten years. Here’s my dilemma: At least twice a
week I encounter someone who says “Hi Carole. How are you?” It
happens in Costco, in restaurants, even in the bathroom at the
movies. I never know what to say, other than a painfully bland “Fine.
How about you?” Usually I have no idea who I am talking to. Also, I
get brain freeze from embarrassment and trying to quickly run the
index of former students, members of the temple, parents from my
children’s school teams, etc etc. Is there a polite was to say “I have no
idea who you are.”?????? Normally, I wouldn’t mind having a short
conversation about life. But since I have no idea who I’m talking to, I
tend to be self-protective about not wanting to say the wrong thing to
the wrong person. I’m tired of being so scared and guarded, and fear
the problem will only get worse with age.
Loss of facial memory recognition is a neurological disorder that can
afflict people of any age. But as most people over forty will tell you,
two of the clearest signs of aging are that your arms are too short to
hold newspapers (get thee to an optometrist!) and that you’ll have no
idea who is saying hello with increasing frequency. Many of us face the
same sense of awkward politeness. It’s often mixed with the naïve
optimism that our brains will kick in, or that the other person will drop
some useful clue that will inspire memory or insight. It rarely happens.
Worse, once the nanosecond of honest admission has passed, it is very
hard to recapture.
Here’s the good news: Most people, other than the most self-absorbed
or overly-sensitive, respond well to an honest statement like: I know I
know you and I know I like you, But I am getting old and cannot put a
name to your face. Try it a few times in front of the mirror to lose the guilty sense that you are lying outright to someone you should know.
Your sentence has the benefit of truth (you have no idea who you are
talking to) plus the social grease of acting as though it’s a positive
That said: keep your first, second, and tertiary security
systems on guard. Assume anything you say can and will be
misquoted. Stick to the weather and other non-controversial topics.
Keep these conversations short, exchange email addresses, and hope
you don’t actually have to follow through on anything. PS It’s for
occasions like this that a yahoo, gmail, or other non-personal address
comes in handy.