What are your strengths? What are you good at? What do your friends, family, and others around you, regard as your strengths? In my case, friends and family have often made reference to my memory. I’m not sure that they all regard it as a strength, but it’s certainly something that gets mentioned. On numerous occasions over the last 20 years, the wife of an old work colleague has introduced me to people as “someone who knows everything about everything”. It’s not a claim I would ever make for myself and, as you’d expect, it’s a bit of a conversation killer.
Feats of memory (like learning the value of pi to thousands of decimal places) do not interest me, but I am interested in the fact that some bits of information are retained and others are not. In my view I am good at conversation recall and biographical detail. Most of the things that people tell me about themselves, face to face, stick in my mind. If they tell me about people I have never met, and am unlikely to meet, much of the information will be gone before the conversation is over.
My interest in conversation recall has prompted previous pieces on this Blog, going back to this one in 2015, and even a category of its own. This is the first time I have used the category in over 18 months. I have realized since the start of this year that there is one area of conversation recall and biographical detail that I am not good at: medical chat. When friends tell me about their ailments, diagnoses and medication very little of it sticks in my mind.
Back in March I had dinner with an old school-friend. He’d had a health scare a few weeks earlier. I remember what he told me of his hospital visit: he felt unwell on the way to work and headed straight to St George’s Hospital. He thought that his number was up, a heart attack or something equally serious. It turns out that it wasn’t anything as serious as that, it was something treatable, and he’s on medication that will keep it in check. But that’s all I remember. The details of the diagnosis and the name of the medication are gone. Something gastro-intestinal, I think. My failure to retain this information doesn’t mean that I’m not interested or don’t care, it’s just that this sort of thing doesn’t stay in my brain.
At a party last month I was chatting to a husband and wife I have known for a long time. I have known her since university, and she has often made a point about my memory, though in a more positive way than describing me as “someone who knows everything about everything”. The conversation turned to epilepsy, a subject about which I know very little. One of the other guests, who we had all been speaking to, and who had just left the party, is prone to seizures. I hadn’t spoken to him about that. We had mostly talked about Grenfell. The husband told me that he (the guest who had just left) has been on the strongest medication available (no, sorry, can’t remember what it’s called) and is about to undergo an operation on his brain to, well I’m not sure what it will do. My friend gave it a name and started to describe it, but before he got very far I said something along these lines: “I’m sorry, I’m no good at medical chat. I’ve only realized it recently. Whatever you tell me will be gone in a few seconds. I just don’t retain that information.” He took it well. We agreed that it was probably a good trait. It came up in conversation again earlier this month. The topic had turned, once more, to something medical, to some diagnosis I know nothing about, and before we got much further he said, “Oh, I remember, you don’t do medical chat. I think that’s really good.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be so good if I were in the medical business. You wouldn’t want a doctor who had difficulty retaining information about diagnoses and treatments, but (obviously enough) I am not in that business. I hope that all of my friends live long, happy and healthy lives but apologize in advance if I am unable to remember the details of any health scares or treatments that they might go through. Maybe it’s a strength rather than a weakness. I am not going to take an unhealthy interest in someone else’s troubles. If you’re not well, you should see a doctor. No point talking to me about it. And when you’ve recovered, when you’re well, and the treatment has worked, we can talk about something more enjoyable instead. But now I know that if you want me to remember the details of diagnoses, treatments or medication, I’ll have to take notes.