Hi… person I don’t recognize but who I assume knows me!

I have a degree of face-blindness. I can’t recognize people out of context. By which I mean: My own mother could walk by me in the mall when I’m not expecting her to be there, and I won’t recognize her. It’s happened.

This can hurt people’s feelings. I’ve discovered over the years that when you don’t recognize someone, they’ll usually think that you’ve forgotten them, and they feel insulted that you think they’re forgettable – especially if you’ve known them for a few months or years. They assume that “not recognized” = “not remembered” and feel upset that they have that little an impact on your life that you don’t remember them.

This is a problem. I’ve tried to correct it by learning how to recognize people out of context better, but that didn’t work – I think mainly because I recognize people more from clothing, hair style, build, and occasionally definingly weird things about their teeth than I do from faces. Out of context means out of typical clothing and hair, usually (since most people don’t wear lab gear while “out and about” so to speak – unless they’re like me and forget to take their lab gear off when they go home on occasion and get to spend the bus ride with a four-foot bubble of personal space in rush hour, but that’s another story), so then I’m stuck with build and teeth, and unless the person has really strange teeth, I’m up a creek. Likewise, if coworkers have massive changes to hair or clothing, I’ll have a hard time recognizing them at a glance.

Sometimes I can recognize people by voice. This is usually those whose voices I hear a lot and who have unusual voices in some way – I can recognize one person because he’s not Canadian and so his accent is distinctive in this region, for example. Someone else I know has the voice of a 3 pack a day 30-year smoker, which is unusual nowadays due to stop-smoking campaigns.

The rest of the time… I have no idea who you are if I’m seeing you out of the context I’m used to seeing you in. Because of this and the fact that I dislike hurting people’s feelings, ย I’ve had to master the art of the generic nonanswer, in a similar way that M. Kelter relays in the post Asperger’s Syndrome Versus Alpha Male Syndrome. Conversations tend to go something like this:

Person: Heyyy, how are you?! Long time no see!

Are they talking to me? I think so.ย Crap. Who is this person?

Me: Hi! Yeah, been a while, hasn’t it?

Person: Yeah! Ohmigod, haven’t heard from you in forever.

Obviously not because you seem to know me.

Me: Yeah, well, you know how it is.

Person: Yeah, I’ve been so busy.

Me: What are you up to lately?

Maybe I’ll get a clue of who they are?

Person: Oh, you know. Work and all. My boss is a total jerk, so I’ve been too busy to be around much. You?

That doesn’t help.

Me: Grad school. PhD.

Resist the urge to monolog – will save successful. Can always monolog later if I want them to go away.

Person: Sounds interesting. Are you planning to become a professor?

Was that approval or disapproval?

Me: I dunno. It’s a tough job market – I’m trying to get engineering certifications so I can switch fields since I’m more likely to get a good job in engineering.

Person: That’s probably a good idea. I’m working at [big box store] right now because I couldn’t find a chemistry job.

So I know you through work or school somehow. That doesn’t narrow it down much.

Me: That sucks.

Person: Well, you know, that’s how it goes sometimes.

Who are you?! Wait – my partner’s here, and he’s probably more lost than I am.

Me: I don’t know if I’ve ever introduced you, but this is [partner’s name], my boyfriend.

Person: Oh, nice to see you again! I think I’ve met you once – I’m [person’s name]. She used to TA me.

Oh! I remember you now!

I spend the rest of the conversation feeling significantly less lost.


12 thoughts on “Hi… person I don’t recognize but who I assume knows me!

  1. autisticook says:

    Clever save! ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. alexforshaw says:

    I’ve worked out that I remember and recognize people based on particular features, but I have a lot of trouble putting them together to visualize a complete face. Strangely I can recall a photo featuring somebody’s face much better than I can recall their face from seeing them directly.

    Your conversation reminds of the time I spent about 20 minutes in a waiting room on a platform at Ely station talking to a woman who clearly knew me well. 20 years later I still have no idea who she was or where she knew me from, except that it must have been somewhere in or around Cambridge.

    • ischemgeek says:

      I used to have conversations like that happen a lot. My father is a popular person in the community where he lives, and he has a lot of people in and out of his place. Because of that, I used to get strange adults coming up to say, “Hey, you’re [Dad’s] daughter! You remember me, right?”

      I think that’s why I got so good at this sort of generic nonanswer – if I didn’t remember the person, they’d complain at my father and I’d get chided for being rude. My parents actually taught me the generic nonanswer technique so I wouldn’t piss off my dad’s friends. XD

  3. feministaspie says:

    All the time. ALL. THE. TIME.

    It’s always nice to hear that it’s not just me!! ๐Ÿ˜›

  4. My daughter lives some distance away so I only see her a few times a year and often don’t recognize her at the airport because she’s constantly changing her hair and clothing styles. Also, one day we were at a museum and she went to get our coats and when she came back and stood next to me, I glanced up and was annoyed at how close this “strange woman” was standing to me until Jess said something about how long the line at the coat check room had been.

    My husband has learned to just shout my name when he sees me looking around for him in a public place where we’ve gotten separated. ๐Ÿ˜€

    I’ve just started telling acquaintances that I have trouble recognizing people out of context, which most people seem to get. It’s not the best solution but I suck at the vague type of conversation you describe and people immediately sense that I’m faking it, which is so awkward. Like, I once had a neighbor who I knew for years say “it’s Sandy, Lucy’s mom” when we met in the post office and it quickly became clear that I had no idea who she was (but did have a vague idea that she looked familiar). The “out of context” explanation was funny to her and the next time I saw her walking her dog (Lucy) and recognized her, it was an icebreaker.

    • ischemgeek says:

      I’ve done that with my sister, too, and my parents used to just pick a meet-up spot because I never could find them in the crowd if we got separated (and I was a quiet kid who could easily get enthralled by interesting things, so we got separated a lot), and asking for help wouldn’t occur to me. The meetup spot worked well.

      Side-stepped the whole finding-them-in-the-crowd issue quite well.

  5. notsureofwhatsnext says:

    I’ve always thought the term ‘face-blindess’ to be rather confusing, but at the same time thinking maybe there’s really no other way to describe it.

    I have similar issues when running into people out of context from how I might know them, but with some possible and slight variation from your experiences. I don’t think I have trouble remembering why I know someone or how and why we might have met, it has more to do with not being able to comprehend what the extent of that relationship is or might have been. When conversations occur in this situation, I’m always wondering why it should be going beyond a simple ‘hello’ or ‘nice to see you again’ and that’s it. It has always been confusing to not know whether I’m being aloof or acting like a jerk or if it’s that the other person is over stepping their boundaries by thinking that they might know me on some intimate level that I wasn’t aware. I’m able to attach a physical memory to people, but not an emotional one. Either way, it makes for social scenarios that I avoid as much as possible.

    The more I think about it, face-blindess probably takes on more forms than I realize in how I interact with other people in general. Well, I guess I know what I’ll be thinking about all day.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughtful post!

    • ischemgeek says:

      That’s interesting. I attach memories to people, but faces don’t trigger the memories for me. Neither do names, really (I’m bad with names, too). So I’ll remember, say, parents of kids in the martial arts club, but I remember them as “Person who wears a big puffy black jacket in winter and goes for a run while her kid is in class and who was nice enough to offer me a drive home that day when she saw me in a store and the wind chill was -45C so I didn’t freeze,” for example, rather than “So-and-so of this physical description and that face.”

      • notsureofwhatsnext says:

        I’ve never been good with names either. I’ll only remember someone’s name if I’m given a first and last, but most likely will only remember the first after that. It’s not a sure-fire method, but if they only tell me one name there’s very little chance of me remembering; both names increase the odds just a bit.
        I think my relation to face-blindness is heavily linked to my inability to understand facial expressions. I stare a lot when I’m in a situation crowded with people, generally looking around to see if any persons look familiar to me, which leads inevitably to varying degrees of eye contact being made in the process. This is where things get confusing for me, whether I actually recognize someone or not, being unsure if I really know a person at all or how well, are they smiling back at me, is it because we’re friends, are they staring at me because I was staring at them, on and on. If a conversation does happen after any of this, it’s pretty much up to the other person to dictate how it’s going to go, what we’re going to talk about, etc…
        I find it amusing how many times this has led to an awkward re-introduction, feeling like I’ve never met someone, introducing myself, then being told we’re already met! I think this makes other people embarrassed and can find it a bit offensive.

  6. TC says:

    the condition is called prosopagnosia and is unable to be treated medically or way of prescription drugs. It appears in those who are subjected to autism or have had a stroke of some kind. Acknowledging that there is something missing is the first step. Being honest and finding coping mechanisms such as the stories above can be very helpful. Remembering if certain people wear jewelry, styles, or even freckles can be helpful. Never let anyone put you down for this condition. It is their own self-worth toying with them. At least you can do is be successful in your day to day life.

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