I'm still blushing from this experience and wonder if I or others involved could have avoided embarrassment by improving our manners.
I attended a potluck dinner for an organization I recently joined. This was one of those casual affairs where it is assumed that introductions are unnecessary, although I doubt that any group member could reliably name every other member of the group, let alone come up with a conversation-starting comment about mutual interests or experiences. Added to the social challenge was the presence of significant others, offspring, and even a pet or two.
I ended up seated next to a friendly woman who appeared to be the spouse of a member of the group (at least she was sitting next to him). Let's call her Ms. X. She looked vaguely familiar, but then so did everyone else. The general conversation began, and it became apparent that she was a prominent academic of whom someone in my line of work should have heard . . . but which one? I had a few ideas as to who this Professor X might be, but didn't want to hazard a guess unless she turned out to be Professor Y or Z instead. Meanwhile, no one at the table came to my aid by mentioning her by name, her university and department, or the title of any of her books (which I would have instantly recognized).
Meanwhile she must have thought I was a complete idiot, politely asking her ignorant questions about her work when she is a prominent professor at the institution where we both work. The time had long passed to say "I didn't catch your name," and there was no way to check discreetly with someone else in the room as we were all seated at the table by then. I finally fled to the dessert table in disarray and sat down at another place at the table.
What was the best way out of this dilemma? The lesson, of course, is for all of us to perform introductions or introduce ourselves even if we think the parties should or do know each other. But what to do when the crucial info is missing and you're well into a conversation? (I did confirm her identity and send a follow-up note (OK, an e-mail) the next day to explain my failure to identify her out of context and apologize for my failure to connect my dinner partner with the distinguished scholar she is.)
Dear Potlucked Out:
There’s a phrase in the real estate industry – or maybe Etiquetteer read it in James Spada’s excellent biography of Bette Davis, More Than A Woman, Etiquetteer just can’t remember which: "If you can’t hide it, paint it red." At that stage in the conversation there was clearly no hiding that you couldn’t identify Professor X. So rather than continue to hem and haw, just offer your hand with a hearty "You know, I ought to know who you are, but I just cannot place the name and the face together. I’m [insert Your Name Here]."
You were also a newcomer on this occasion, Etiquetteer notes. Frequently in situations where group members are too oblivious or uncaring to greet newcomers, the newcomers need to look out for themselves. One does that best by introducing oneself the very first time one speaks or sits next to someone else. And you already picked up on this as you stated this as the lesson learned in your letter. So three cheers! Etiquetteer is delighted that you know now the Perfect Propriety of a Forthright Self-Introduction. Now go and sin no more at the next potluck.