The Generational Switcheroo
At a recent event I attended, a speaker talked about a father and son who were in attendance. He had met them numerous times, yet in his remarks he couldn't keep their names straight. Every time he mentioned the father he called him by the son's name, and vice versa. No matter how often he was corrected, he just couldn't get them right.
I listened with sympathy. I've been caught in the same trap, and I'll bet you have, too. The well-meaning speaker had fallen victim to the Generational Switcheroo.
Here's how it works. You meet a woman, age 40, and her daughter, age 10. They both have popular, familiar names; let's call them Emma and Melissa. The problem is that the mom is Emma and the daughter is Melissa. It's an age-band switcheroo: each bears a typical name of the other's generation.
Take a look at the distribution of American Melissas and Emmas born over the past half-century:
That demographic profile translates into mental models. Melissa has become a mom name, very common in the 25-50 age band, whereas most of the Emmas you meet are still in school. So when you meet a Melissa-and-Emma pair, your mind tries to fit them into the expected slots. Mistakes and embarrassment follow.
Back when I studied neuropsychology, we would look at the brain's "mistakes" (e.g. specific cognitive deficits caused by injury) to shed light on normal functioning. Thinking in that way, what might these generational switcheroos tell us about how we usually think about names?
Perhaps a mismatch with the mental demographic always makes a name harder to remember. Most often, though, the effect isn't strong enough to trip us up. If we meet a younger Melissa or older Emma as an individual, we just just take an extra moment to remember the name and pay little attention. But when a parent-child pair is a perfect generational swap the expectation effect is doubled, and it has an easy outlet.
Or to put it another way, perhaps we all carry little NameVoyager graphs in our head, and use them to help us fit new names into our knowledge of the world. I know I do, but I always thought that was a personal quirk; an occupational hazard. Seeing switcheroos in action, I supect I might be in good company.
p.s. Dont forget to enter the Baby Name Pool by Tuesday, April 22!