Meeting new people is exhausting. Upon moving to New York, I found myself at coffee hour after church one day. This is a time in which people mill around a room, drinking coffee, eating a snack of some sort, and theoretically connecting with new people, but in reality talking mostly to people they already know. I’d worked up to this moment. After a couple of months at this church, I finally knew enough people to take the next step. That week, I followed a new friend into the sea of humans hovering around the folding table on which sat cookies that almost tasted homemade. As she introduced me to some of her connections, I had the conversation that has permeated most, if not all, moments of acquaintance.
“Hi, I’m MaryB.”
“What was that?”
“No, like the letter.”
“Oh, is that like your last name?”
“No, it’s my middle initial.”
“So it’s short for something.”
“Ooh let me guess it!”
“You can try, but you’re not going to get it.”
“Oh, is that like a family name?”
“Yes, yes it is.”
“Why do you go by MaryB? Is there a MaryA?”
“No, before I was born, my parents decided that Mary was too plain, and I suppose Mary Brantley had too many syllables. Plus, it’s sort of a family tradition. My mom goes by Sarah Jo, which is short for Josephine. Double names are also quite common in the South.”
By this point, I’d expended much of my limited social energy and we only just made it past our names. That’s the thing about having a name that encourages follow-up questions. If my name were just “Mary,” would all be able to move on with our lives. But add one letter and, as the Joker says in The Dark Night, “Then everyone loses their minds.”
Once the conversation ran its course, I felt compelled to disengage. This presented me with a social quandary. Not only have I already forgotten the other person’s name in the kerfuffle of explaining my own, I do not know on what terms we are leaving things. I prayed that they wouldn’t go for the hug. It would be inappropriate, as we had only just met and I couldn’t tell you one letter in their name with any certainty. I racked my brain for an eject button, landing on the classic, “Well, it was nice to meet you. I need to go get some water. I’ll see you around!” I uttered these words with a wave and a small step backwards, thus curtailing the potential of a hug. I weaved my way over to the beverage table and exhaled.
As I had been attending this church for a couple of months at this point, I began to recognize people. I possess the memory of a stalker when it comes to anything except a person’s name. I have learned over a lifetime of awkward interactions that not everybody shares this particular gifting. It turns out that remembering that someone you’ve only met once doesn’t like cheese invites a bewildered and wary look. It is easier to assume that people do not remember you and are generally creeped out when you notice and remember random details about their habits or preferences. In looking around the room from the beverage table, I contemplated walking out. I scanned the crowd and noticed people I had seen or met before, but I was anxious that they wouldn’t remember me.
I noticed someone from my Bible Study group quietly speaking with a rando on the outskirts of the room. I walked up to her and we exchanged some words, none of which involved our names. She asked about my job hunt, which was going terribly, and I asked how work was for her. Our conversation was embedded with enough context and commonality to flow without forcefulness.
As I walked home, I reflected on the interactions. Why did explaining my name expend so much energy? Why did I find it so frustrating to give someone information they couldn’t possibly have gotten elsewhere? And why was I so attached to the extra letter on my name in the first place? Was it really such a big deal if someone called me “Mary”? Why was the seemingly simple act of making friends so uncomfortable? I remembered talking to my two new friends that day and how nice it was to not have to give a thesis defense on my name, though I once had to relay this information to them as well. Who could say which of the other people I met that night might become friends? But for the moment, I had two. And that was a start.
Note: This story is an amalgam of a few different experiences at separate coffee hours that have been put together for contrast and continuity.