Wait, who are you again?
August 26, 2014 6:25 PM   Subscribe

I am awful at recognizing people by appearance, how can I get better at it?

I have a pretty fantastic memory for things that I've written down (I remember virtually every phone number that I've ever known, and can visually recall what my notes for classes that I took several years ago looked like and what info they contained), but I have a lot of trouble remembering people's faces that I've met once or twice and had a conversation with. I will generally get a glimmer of recognition, but not enough to recall anything about the interaction or context or even to be sure that we have definitely met before.

This is a problem because I work as an organizer for a non-profit: it is my job to meet a lot of people in various locations and build relationships with them, which is hard if I can't remember who they are. When I meet them, they are generally signing some sort of sign-up sheet, so I can take notes after the interaction if I need to, but I can't figure out what kind of notes would be effective to make me actually recognize them the next time I run into them. I always remember what I write down about them—I will remember John Smith's life story that he told me when we met yesterday, but if I see John Smith in person again, I'll have no idea who he is. Any good hacks for me?
posted by cheerwine to Human Relations (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Write down their name and then google them after the meeting. Find a good photo of them online and make yourself flashcards with the photos and names of people you really need to recall. Train with them a few days a week for 10 minutes or so at a time. (Use Anki or similar spaced repetition software if you want to make it really effective).

I frequently learn all my students' names this way, and I teach 200 or so a semester. I am not naturally good at matching names to faces.
posted by lollusc at 6:28 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

previously and previously
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 6:31 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I mentally caricaturize them. Probably not the kindest way ever, but it works.
posted by celtalitha at 6:31 PM on August 26, 2014

Forgive me if you've already considered it, but might you have prosopagnosia? I don't have any concrete ideas to help you, but a diagnosis or at least a word to describe what you're experiencing might be useful, especially for googling tips and tricks from other people who have the same issues.
posted by mr. manager at 6:32 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Forgot to mention, if it's relevant, the environments in which I generally meet people for work usually present me with many people of very similar demographics (i.e. I'll meet 30 wealthy-looking white women, most of whom have blonde or light brown straight hair and are in their late 20s at one place, then 45 Latinas in their 30s who appear to have service industry jobs and are fairly physically fit at another place.), which I think may be making it a bit harder for me to recall specific faces. And I work in education organizing, so all of the people who I talk to are accompanied by at least one child, and I'm MUCH better at remembering children by face and demeanor than adults (at work and otherwise).

And mr. manager, though the use of other visual cues like gait and clothing is something I'm better at, I'm able to recognize faces when I meet fewer people at a time, so I don't think it could be prosopagnosia.
posted by cheerwine at 6:55 PM on August 26, 2014

Best answer: I'm terrible with names, but fortunately I don't have a job riding on it. I let people know when I meet them that I'm really skilled at forgetting names, so if it happens to them, don't take it personally.

I make a point of using their name at least three times. Annoying, but it helps.
I'm Bob the Builder
Nice to meet you, Bob. Have you been involved in NP thing long?
I'm happy to hear that, Bob.
He says one more thing.
It's been a pleasure talking to you, and I look forward to our next meeting, Bob.

Finally I fingerspell the name, and imagine the letters traveling across their forehead. (I already knew how to fingerspell). I think this works because it's switching from aural to kinesthetic to visual and back.
posted by Jesse the K at 6:55 PM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The traditional method is to find something about them, like, say, a cowlick, and then find something about their name that you can connect, via some weird visual, with the cowlick.

My method is to make sure that after a meeting I pull their picture off Linkedin and then put it in my Contact Book where their email is, so that when they email me, I see their face, not just their name.
posted by musofire at 7:20 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Maybe just try and note ONE thing about their appearance?

It's not the thing, so much as, it might convince your brain that this is a useful thing to remember, just like their name, and all the things they've told you.

Keep on the lookout for physical aspects of hair, clothing, etc, that you can compliment people on. D go for things they have chosen, not so much innate - I know that narrows the field given we are trying to remember descriptions, but it can be demoralising to be 'complimented' on your appearance, and things you didn't choose about yourself.
Again, just trying to train your brain into what you want it to pay attention to.
posted by Elysum at 7:56 PM on August 26, 2014

What Jesse the K said above. Use their name. And you aren't a bad person charoine for not being adept. I think remembering a name is somewhat overrated so long as you know the relationship.
posted by vapidave at 10:28 PM on August 26, 2014

The OP isn't having trouble remembering names, it's that they don't recognize faces.
posted by feets at 2:25 AM on August 27, 2014

I have the same problem and haven't worked out how to address it. Instead I focus on acting like I already know everybody and say things like,"Soooo, how have you been/what have you been up to?" People either think I'm friendly or that I'm carrying I my interest from a previous meeting. And I'm sort of quiet when I meet people that I fear I may have met before but don't know from Adam. In this case I find they remember me and project my quietness to earnest listening. Which I am. But I'm also covering that I'm trying to place them in time, place and history.

So...be quiet when you meet people you may have met before, smile, be warm and ask open questions. When you inevitably cock up and assume you do/don't know someone...say "Oh yes, I knew that, my apologies I just haven't had enough coffee today."

And that's how you fake it when you can't possibly make it. -Love from someone who worries she has prosopagnosia the moment someone changes their clothes or puts a bloody hat or sunglasses on.
posted by taff at 3:48 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Two anecdotes:
1) I was desperate to talk to a conference speaker after his keynote speech. He was mildly famous and I'd googled the hell out of him, looked at all his pictures etc. I hurried after him when he walked off the podium. He turned a corner. I followed...and was in a room full of people who were all dessed like him (dark suit and tie, short hair). I never found him again.

2) I was about to meet a lady and her business associates for a lunch. Said lady was, as you say, white, mid thirties, rich, with blonde hair. I printed out her vanity picture and took it to the restaurant with me. There was a blonde lady their. I stared at her, stared at the picture, stared at her. I couldn't figure out if it was her or not! Pictures are way different than a moving, alive person. Hairdos, clothes etc. change the entire look of a face. (It wasn't her. She ended up finding me instead of the other way around.)

So now you know what didn't work for me. My best bet is to pick one defining feature (crooked nose, eyes close together etc.) I find that if I actually write down "crooked nose" and then subvocalize it when I am looking at a likely-to-be-them candidate it is easier to see if it is actually him or not. If I just try to memorise the face without putting words to it, it doesn't work so well.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:51 AM on August 27, 2014

Also, I don't remember faces OR names and I work a job that basically requires it. So remember me and my sad plight when you're getting annoyed!
posted by Omnomnom at 5:53 AM on August 27, 2014

I struggle with this problem too. For some reason, though I can't keep a holistic picture of a face in my head, I can remember one or two details about that face. My workaround is just picking a detail like the curve of the nostril opening, the shape of an upper lip, the point of the chin, the texture of the skin on the nose or the meeting of the eyebrows and filing that away as a marker. (oh, and eyeglasses are a pretty good cheat.) It's not optimal and I really hope you get some better suggestions in this thread.
posted by klarck at 5:54 AM on August 27, 2014

I have actually tried neurofeedback for prosopagnosia and it helped. The idea is that there is a specific area of the brain for recognizing faces and an EEG can determine if that area is active and feed this information back to you.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:20 AM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Obscure Reference, what sort of professional or business does one call to try that sort of thing?
posted by yohko at 2:00 PM on August 27, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! These suggestions are great. A few more complicating factors on some of the suggestions, though: 1. Many of the people that I'm meeting are unlikely to have a searchable photo online (low income communities, no Internet at home). 2. When I'm meeting people, I'm usually proactively approaching them ("hi, I'm cheerwine with the nonprofit. We're having a meeting at place at time on day about thing. Can you make it?") as they're trying to rush out the door, so there isn't usually time to chat and fish around for recognition.
posted by cheerwine at 5:30 PM on August 27, 2014

A neurofeedback practitioner. This is currently a wild & unregulated profession with many different competing certifications and types of equipment. The guy I saw was a psychologist doing research.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:42 PM on August 27, 2014

I've had four professors this semester take photos of every student standing in front of a white board with their name written on it, explaining that this was the only way they would ever manage to learn our names.

Since you're meeting people in less formal settings, could you ask to snap a picture of them while putting their contact information into your phone, perhaps?
posted by inertia at 9:48 AM on August 29, 2014

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