Thursday, February 12, 2015

help, I have no idea who you are

This is just gonna be me whining that my life is sooo hard, so I suggest moving along :)

I'm really, really bad at recognizing people. I heard this (not that funny) joke at a comedy show once: "It's so weird how people always say they're bad with names. Like, opposed to what? How could you be good with names but bad with faces? Would you just walk around with a list of names in your head and no association to the people around you? Saying names randomly hoping the person you're looking for will hear? Haha that would be ridiculous."

Yes. That's exactly what it's like.

I first realized this as an undergrad when I tried to participate in an experiment involving facial expressions. I'm not exactly sure what they were testing (they don't usually tell you) but the experiment consisted of a training period in which you learned to easily distinguish four very similar faces (just the faces, no hair or anything). Then once you could tell them apart immediately and consistently, there was some other association test I don't even remember. Anyway, the whole thing usually took around 30-45 minutes. After an hour I still hadn't passed the training test. I came back for a second session, finally passed the training test after about another 45 minutes, and did the experiment.

I suspect I never noticed before that because I was too socially oblivious (until quite awhile after that, honestly) to notice awkward interactions that would clue me into something being wrong when I treated nonstrangers like strangers. And also, especially coming from small schools and a small town, you don't accumulate very many acquaintances until college in the first place.

But I'm definitely not faceblind: I also saw some internet talk about faceblindness once with a quiz for the audience in which people were supposed to keep track of how many celebrities they could recognize without hair and out of context. The point was that it's a lot harder than you expect. But I was awesome at it. Faces make a deep impression in my memory, but only after a long time and a lot of exposure.

With new self-awareness I've tried to compensate. I try really hard to remember features other than clothing (my subconscious default, apparently). Hair is salient and at least divides people into a few clearly demarcated bins, by color and/or length, but those are coarse divisions and there have been many failures in which someone I know reasonably well got a haircut or color and I didn't realize they were the same person for half a conversation or more. There are a few people I recognize by their glasses, but that's obviously dangerous since they change and people wear contacts. Height and build is much too coarse of a differentiator, and you really want to be able to recognize faces on their own anyway. A very small percentage of people have such distinctive faces that there's any detail I can fixate on and remember.

Failing much actual improvement in recognition, I use compensating devices. On the job market I think I spent just as much time studying people's photos as I did learning about their research. When going to conferences or other departments, etc, I try to look up what people look like who I know I should recognize (which mitigates approximately 1 in 8 embarrassing scenarios, but that's better than nothing.) I made face flashcards of everyone in my department before starting work, from which I easily learned names but they didn't help with faces one iota; people look too different in person than in photos. When meeting people in crowded places, I try not to make direct eye contact with anyone, maybe stare at my phone or elsewhere, to give them a chance to flag me down before I fail to find them.

These devices aren't very effective so I still run into a lot of problems. The motive for paying such close attention to faces on the job market was a previous job interview experience in which (so I deduced in hindsight after the awkwardness became so palpable that I clued in to my mistake) I introduced myself to the head interviewer on three separate occasions within a few hours. I also routinely look directly at someone I should know, smile or stare blankly and keep going, and then they awkwardly say hi Vera how's it going! while I desperately try to deduce what I can safely say to this mysterious person. I can't count how many times I've had entire conversations with people who know me that I'd swear I'd never seen before in my life, in which I mess up and say "I used to live in southern California" to a former Caltech classmate or something like that. Many other times I've agreed to meet someone in a few minutes in some other place and, immediately after turning away, realized I wasn't going to be able to find them. I'm inspired to write this blog post at this particular time after a two day conference in which I've failed to recognize so many people within the appropriate amount of time (even with nametags! for the love of god, wear your nametags, in a prominent position, and in the correct orientation!) that I'm well on my way to offending members of every major Australian economics department.

Help! What do I do? Does anyone have any secret tricks?

In the meantime, if you know me and I look through you without recognition, please don't take it personally. I surely remember our previous interactions well, you just don't happen to have conveniently recognizable green eyebrows...

8 comments:

JohnRaymond said...

Wow, this comes as a bit of a shock to me. I have never noticed ... But it's great that you're honest about it and looking for some strategies. I have had experiences similar to yours, actually, but haven't found it crippling - but maybe I'm just not sensitive enough to realize what people are thinking about me when I've failed to address them by name, for instance. I really have to work on retaining names.

Anonymous said...

There are often conference or meeting attendee lists available before the event to those who have registered.
I found it verrrry helpful to study these lists.
v/r
jg

Rebecca te Velde said...

It must be genetic, except for me it can be the name or the face or both. Sometimes I'm better with face recognition, but it's always a big problem one way or the other. In fact I've gotten paranoid about calling people by their name when I see them, even when I know them quite well and see them often, for fear of calling them the wrong name, because it has happened too many times. I'm afraid people must think me stuck up or aloof for not addressing them by name when they always address me with a cheery "Hi, Becky" and all I can reply is "Hi, how are you?" And that's with people I see all the time. It's hopeless with those I see only once in awhile. The morning after an AGO convention ends, I'm seeing lots of familiar-looking people in the elevator and at the check-out desk, and without their name tags I cannot for the life of me remember who they are from the day before when they had a nametag on. I didn't know you struggle with this so much too! Sorry about that...

David said...

All of this sounds very familiar to me. I lost some people-recognition skills in a traumatic brain accident many years back. It didn't much otherwise affect me, but I have the same symptoms you describe where I all the time run into people I ought to know (say, I just had an intense conversation with them over dinner the night before) and I treat them like someone I'm glad to meet for the first time. It's annoying and makes me look like a jerk and discourages me from socializing and drives me up the wall. I don't have much in the way of ways of coping with it that goes beyond the tricks you mentioned... I've settled on just thinking of it as my cross to bear and being happy I don't have a heavier one.

Vera L. te Velde said...

yep, never address people by name... and omg yes it's so aggravating that people only wear their nametags for the first half day of a conference on average.

Vera L. te Velde said...

oh wow I'm so sorry about that. it must be so much worse to lose that ability than to grow up without it in the first place. but yes, drives me batty, but could be so much worse!

bruno said...

go to japan, where you'll always be addressed by name and where you'll be expected to do the same to others, because saying 'you' when you know the person's name is considered kinda impolite.

Vera L. te Velde said...

oh wow, that sounds awful! combine that with the fact that everyone has the same hair color, they'd really hate me over there.