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, 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. 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.