Forgetting someone’s name is embarrassing, especially when the not-stranger in question remembers yours perfectly well. But since everyone slips up at one time or another, in the grand scheme of things it shouldn’t matter that much, right? Unfortunately, that’s only half-true according to a new study from researchers at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, which aimed to understand something that’s largely been unexplored: the lasting impact of being forgotten.
Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study confirmed that the experience of being forgotten—whether in terms of one’s name, personal details like one’s birthday, or shared experiences—is fairly ubiquitous. For one of the four experiments covered in the paper, students who were asked to keep online diaries “were forgotten on just as many days as they were not forgotten.” How these poor Forgotten reacted was mixed. On the one hand, “people will try their best to be forgiving,” said lead researcher Devin Ray in an interview with the Atlantic, referring to participants’ tendency to explain away the mistake as being due to situational factors like the forgetter being busy or absent-minded rather than malicious. Despite this generosity, however, the relationship still sustained real damage: Those who were forgotten still felt less close to and perceived themselves as less important to those who had forgotten them.
The finding that an honest mistake like name forgetfulness can still have a long-lasting negative impact on our relationships resonated strongly with me as a person of color. Getting consistently mixed up with the other person of color in a predominately white setting is a depressingly common experience for us; in fact, in his interview with the Atlantic, Ray said his “earliest inspiration for looking into forgetting … came from witnessing a professor constantly mix up the names of two of his ‘non-white’ graduate students.” Though these blunders are very common and rarely malicious, this study affirms the feeling of alienation I so often feel when I’m called by the name of another black woman whose only characteristic I share is our race. The fact that those errors aren’t spiteful often makes the experience even worse: Correcting co-workers or friends of friends and conveying my irritation is either met with guilt-inducing apologies or hand-wavey, panicked assertions of egalitarianism. And though I try to be understanding, underneath this entire interaction is the certainty that if this person really cared about me, they wouldn’t make the mistake.
While the impact of one small incident of, say, forgetting your co-worker’s favorite song, might fade over time, the cumulative effects of being forgotten or confused for the only other nonwhite person in your office might, in the study authors’ words, “create a downward spiral in which forgetting undermines investment in a relationship.” The undermining of that investment will almost certainly have a negative impact on workplace relationships; in the case of the students whose adviser kept mixing them up, there’s little doubt that those tiny slights damaged one of the most important relationships you form in graduate school. What makes Ray’s research so important is that it demonstrates that even when people who are forgotten try to move past the insult, the sting still unconsciously lingers, accumulating over time alongside other forms of discrimination.
There is good news though: The study concluded that being forgotten had little to no bearing on people’s self-esteem. So next time you forget your friend’s birthday or mix up your two Asian co-workers, take heart in the fact that while you might have irreparably damaged your relationship with them, you probably didn’t ruin their life.