I have a confession to make: I probably don’t know who you are.
Not “you”, all the strangers I’ve never met, but “you”, all the people I already know and have met multiple times. It’s not that I’m bad with faces exactly, it’s that sometimes I truly don’t recognize people I know. It’s very unsettling to have a conversation with a stranger, only to figure out halfway through that I actually already know the person. It’s also embarrassing to have the other person say, “Oh we’ve met before at that thing. Remember, from that party?” I rarely remember, so I blush and laugh and make everyone uncomfortable.
I recently learned I have a mild form of “Face Blindness”, or Prosopagnosia, in which I can’t always recognize the face of someone I know. Sometimes it’s someone I know very well. For instance, my niece Hannah once came home from college as a surprise and when she walked into the restaurant where we were having a family dinner, I was trying to figure out why this young woman was approaching our table and smiling. It was only when someone called out her name that I figured out who she was. I got confused because I wasn’t expecting to see her there and she had also changed her hair. This happened a couple of weeks ago as well when she approached me at the gym, and I didn’t know who she was because her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Some uncle, eh?
I’ve also wondered if a woman in the grocery store was my sister, and rather than say hello, I waited to see if she knew me. This has happened more than once. I literally cannot tell you how many times I have used the excuse “Oh, sorry I didn’t recognize you. I forgot my glasses.” It doesn’t always work, especially if I’m actually wearing my glasses. On the other hand, there are people I recognize without fail every single time, which is even more confusing. It’s hit and miss, but I try to compensate by paying attention to what the other person says until I can make the connection. Sometimes I never do, which is the worst situation of all.
It’s not that I don’t know who people are. I mean, I’m not really all that bright, but I am caught off guard if I see people out of context from where I know them. I once had an entire conversation with a woman at the grocery store (I seriously thought she was hitting on me), when I realized she lives across the street from me. This problem had been bothering me for much of my life, where I kept thinking I was either losing my mind (still possible) or had some kind of brain damage, until I read an article about Brad Pitt in which he described being unable to recognize people he had met many times before. He mentioned that people were constantly offended by his inability to know who they are, which was causing him a great deal of social anxiety. I had never heard of this before, but it really clicked with me. Besides the other obvious similarities between me and Brad Pitt, it made me do a little research into this condition. It turns out that around 2% of the population has this same problem to varying degrees. Brad Pitt and I both hit the lottery, right?
For all I know, Brad Pitt and I have already met each other a bunch of times. I’d offer to introduce you, but I’m not even sure who *you* are.
I’m very lucky that I have a mild form of Face Blindness, because there are some people who don’t even recognize themselves in a mirror. I realized that for the most part, I rely on location, clothing, hairstyle and voice to figure out who people are. I have particular difficulty in recognizing women, which I originally thought was because I am same-sex oriented, but it’s actually because women change their hair and their style frequently, which confuses me. I sometimes can’t tell if someone I pass on the street who smiles at me is a coworker, an acquaintance, a friend, or just a friendly stranger. I almost always wait for the other person to say hello before I say anything (in case I’m wrong), which makes me wonder how many people I’ve unintentionally snubbed because I had no idea we already knew each other. There must be a large number of people who think I’m a real asshole who won’t even say hello. I apologize if I didn’t say hello to you at the mall that one time.
This problem is a particular challenge at work, where I support 200 people spread across six buildings downtown. I’ve stalled many times with people as I frantically searched phone lists for clues, or looked for business cards to figure out who the person is I’m talking to. I play things off like I’m an absent-minded professor, but I honestly can’t put faces together in my mind.
Oddly, I also have a condition called Spacial Sequence Synesthesia in which I see numbers and dates and calendars in physical locations around my body. If you call out a number, I can tell you exactly where it is physically located in space. I thought this was something everyone was doing too, but I learned about a year ago that most people don’t do this; a number is just a number, not an actual visual thing floating in space. They float in front of my mind’s eye, just like magic. You’d think this visual ability would cancel out the Face Blindness, but apparently this isn’t the case. At least this condition is more private and doesn’t offend anyone.
My mind is like a tangled plate of spaghetti. We are all weirdoes in one way or another, which I think is kind of wonderful, but my weirdness causes no end of social anxiety when I’m struggling to figure out if you and I went to high school together, or if you live next door, or if we have the same mother. So, if we meet in person multiple times, toss me a bone and say, “Hi I’m X. We’ve met before, it’s good to see you.” My gratitude will be profound. And if you’re Brad Pitt, well … I’m a big fan.