Conversation recall · Notes from West London


We had the most enjoyable Saturday. An old friend from university, after a few significant changes in his life, now lives fairly near to us here in West London. Previously he was a two-hour drive away. We hadn’t spoken for over ten years, hadn’t met up for nearly 20 years (my birthday party, in 1996). It happens when you get past a certain age, even when you live in the same country. We met up before 10am for coffee and, after lunch and tea and eight hours in each other’s company, we went our separate ways at 6pm.

We have now caught up, and he has met my wife and children for the first time. (His new wife was out of London for the day, so we haven’t met her yet.) I have a better idea of what his life is like now than I did yesterday. I knew what his life was like 20 years ago. I have no idea what his life was like five years ago. We get snapshots of people, at various stages of their lives. If you spend enough time with them there might be enough information to put together an accurate picture, or a moving picture, or a fully formed 3-D representation of their lives, but for many people all you will get are snapshots. And they will be based on the things they tell you, the things you observe, and the things that you remember. My knowledge of some of the people I have met is based only what I knew, or observed, or was told, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. I try not to fill in the gaps too much. If you do, you’re likely to start making things up.

I regard myself as pretty good at conversation recall and biographical detail. I remember stuff about people, things that they tell me, about themselves and those close to them. Once people get past two degrees of separation, though, my capacity to pay attention and remember diminishes dramatically. I’ll remember the stories people tell me about themselves, their partners, their children, their parents (especially when I’ve met these other members of their families). But anything beyond that close circle, any stories about people that I’m unlikely to meet, will disappear from my memory very quickly.

The biographical details that I am likely to remember include: whether people had brothers or sisters; whether they lost a parent (or brother or sister) early in life; which school or college they went to, the subjects they studied, places they worked, their relationship and parental status, and things that they’re into (music, football, movies, books). I remember very clearly where most of my friends went to work or study in the 1980s. But if we lost touch in the 1990s that’s as far as it goes.

There are many people about whom I know far more than they are ever likely to know about me. There are mathematical reasons for this. I have had many 80/20 conversations, conversations in which other people do at least 80% of the talking and at best 20% of the listening. (I have also had 97/ 3 conversations, but they weren’t really conversations. They were monologues, with me saying things like “Uh-uh”, “Hmm”, “And what happened next?” every now and then.) Even if both of us have 100% conversation recall I will still know four times as much about the other person as they know about me.

In a piece in December about Truman Capote and Conversational Recall I quote myself saying (as a joke, but not always inaccurately) that I have 95% recall. I would guess that most people have 30% recall at best, especially after a period of months has elapsed. (I also know people who seem to have 0% recall: they have asked me exactly the same questions, about my family, about incidents in our lives, three or four times, and I have given them the same, truthful answers to the same questions each time, even though I found it upsetting. After the fourth time I will say, “If you’re not going to remember the answers from the other times you asked me these questions, I’m not going to answer them again.”)

So (to get back to the maths) if I have 95% recall of 80% of a conversation (the part that involved listening to someone else), and the other person has 30% of the remaining 20%, I will remember at least twelve times as much about the other person as they are likely to remember about me. (Here are the calculations: 95% of 80% is 76%; 30% of 20% is 6%. 76% is 12.5 times greater than 6%. Don’t worry if this is difficult, I know plenty of people who hate maths: not everyone gets it, not everyone was taught it properly.)

This level of recall (for conversations and biographical details) can freak people out. A few years ago, at a college reunion, I was chatting to one of my contemporaries. We weren’t close friends at college, hadn’t kept in touch afterwards, maybe bumped into each other at the odd party, but hadn’t spoken for over 20 years. We were talking about where one of his children went to school, a school in Dulwich. I remembered that he had been to Dulwich College and commented along the lines of “Oh, so you decided not to send your son to Dulwich, to your old school”. He looked genuinely shocked. “How do you know where I went to school?” “Well … you told me.” “When?” “When we are at college.” “But that was over 20 years ago.” It’s the kind of biographical detail that sticks with me. In fact, this piece of information stuck because a good friend from a different college had also gone to Dulwich. His younger brother, who I never met, was good friends with the chap I was speaking to. We’d spoken about it back in the 1980s, and we spoke about it again over 20 years later, and we had both lost touch with the two brothers we were talking about. (And, just to connect this to a piece from last week, they are the two brothers alluded to in this piece about The Biograph cinema: “A friend was talking about an evening screening he had been to at the Biograph that summer with his brother …”)

Connections like this help to flesh out the snapshots, of course. You know the sort of thing: Tom went to school with Harry, Harry went out with Dick’s sister Jane, Jane’s brother Bob went to prison for a while and Tom and Dick fell out over, well, nobody really knows why. They might connect up and flesh out the snapshots, but they’re still snapshots.


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