Advertisement

THE HUMAN CONDITION WHY WE FORGET NAMES : Tongue-TIED

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tracey Miller had taken the day off with her husband, Mike Showalter, to buy furniture for the baby they’re expecting next month.

When they returned home, Mike, suddenly feeling sentimental, looked Tracey straight in the eye and whispered tenderly, “I love you, Jan.”

“What did you call me?” Miller asked.

Showalter, who had called his second wife by his first wife’s name, couldn’t explain.

Advertisement

At work the next morning, Miller shared her story with colleague Terri-Rae Elmer and, ultimately, with 300,000 Southern Californians who listen to the KFI radio morning show they co-host.

Elmer’s first reaction: “Punish him! That’s what I did when my husband did it to me. I didn’t speak to him for three days.”

Listeners reacted as well. Some voted for revenge; others opted for forgiveness. The one common thread was that they, too, had been either on the receiving or the giving end of a wrong name.

They are commonly known as Freudian slips, a favorite subject of psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud, who maintained that verbal goofs have great significance because they unmask deeply concealed wishes and intentions. But now, some modern-day social scientists have put a new spin on these slips, claiming that they’re usually caused by nothing more than momentary confusion.

Advertisement

“Sometimes people lose track of who they are interacting with but still remember how they are interacting,” says Alan Page Fiske, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist whose research team interviewed more than 150 people about their social slips.

Among their findings, published this spring in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

* People confuse the names of people with whom they have--or had--the same type of relationship. For example: parents mix up their children’s names. (Some families reported calling their pets by their children’s names, leading Fiske to speculate these are “good families to live in, if you’re a dog.”)

* People are more likely to confuse names belonging to people of the same age, race or gender, especially if they’re conscious of these characteristics. For example: You’re more likely to call two 70-year-old men by the same name than to mix up your grandmother with your niece.

Advertisement

* Verbal slips are more common than mistakes like mailing a letter to the wrong person.

Confusing one person with another happens more often than we realize, says Fiske. “Some people make many of these errors every day,” Fiske says, citing results of the study.

“Others will go a week or two without making any. The average range is two to four mistakes a week.”

Calling your Significant Other by the wrong name is perhaps the most dangerous of all.

Advertisement

Fiske’s research team says calling your current partner by an old flame’s name doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be with the other person.

“We believe such slips are random,” says Nick Haslam, one of Fiske’s co-authors. He says it can be meaningful--maybe you thought about the former partner recently--without meaning that you want to reunite with that person.

These social slips can even be a sign that the relationship is very healthy, claims Laura Schlessinger, KFI’s on-air counselor, who Tracey Miller consulted after her husband’s gaffe. Rescuing Showalter from the doghouse nicely, Schlessinger says he probably was overcome with feelings of intimacy, and it was easy for him to remember the same kind of moments he had with his ex-wife. “It’s very easy for the mind to slip.”

Not everyone is in agreement. Psychoanalyst Troy Thompson, who chairs the department of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, says momentary confusion could be one impetus for misnaming someone. But he says there are many possible explanations. When you call someone by the wrong name, says Thompson, “there is some quality or characteristic that the two people have in common or that you wish they had in common.”

Advertisement

Certainly, Thompson says, some people call others by the wrong name just because two people both have the same accents or both wear suspenders. But some slips, he contends, run deeper.

“The value of a slip is to say to a patient, ‘OK, there’s something (going on) here that you may or may not be consciously aware of.” Fiske’s conclusions, says Thompson, suggest that the researchers don’t fully understand Freud or are uncomfortable with Freud’s teachings.

But Fiske’s team stands firm, maintaining that the mistakes are no big deal, brought on by everyday variables like fatigue and excessive stress.

It also happens more often in large families than in small ones. “There are some families in which the parents or grandparents go through the whole list of children’s or grandchildren’s names (before getting to the right one),” says Fiske.

Advertisement

But even when you understand the dynamics of social slips, they can still be embarrassing. So what’s the most graceful way to recover?

Expect a four-step process, says Charles Hill, a professor of psychology at Whittier College, citing the research of the late Erving Goffman. First, there’s the challenge (someone protests being called by the wrong name). Then you apologize. Next, the person who is slighted accepts. Finally, you are grateful.

Of course, some people are so adept at finessing their slips that they skip Hill’s recovery plan. In the study, a woman said she called her new boyfriend (John) by the name of her old boyfriend (Steve). She glossed over the slip and kept talking, pretending that she had been talking about yet another Steve, who is a mutual friend.

Others hope the mistake will go unnoticed in the heat of the moment. Another woman in the study, while in bed with her husband, called him by her ex-husband’s name. The woman agonized over whether to apologize or to hope the mistake went unnoticed and finally decided to gamble on silence. If he noticed, he never mentioned it.

Advertisement

“These slips have to be taken with a certain amount of humor,” says Fiske, who says his own “phobia” about misnaming people inspired his research. “You have to be willing to laugh at yourself. And I think if someone else makes the mistake, be willing to let them off the hook a bit.”

For Tracey Miller, the key phrase is “a bit.”

“I told myself I have a choice,” Miller recalled thinking after her mate called her Jan. “I could be upset or let it slide.”

She spent a lot of the time on the telephone, asking her sister and three women friends if she were overreacting. All of them said they’d be extremely upset.

Advertisement

“I was cool to him the rest of the night,” Miller says. When her husband did call her by the right name, she said sarcastically: “It’s nice you remembered my name.”


Advertisement