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April 8, 2016 3:53 AM   Subscribe

How to recognise people when you're not good at recognising people?

I am bad at recognising faces. Very, very bad. Have been known to spend the first half hour of films in total confusion because I can’t recognise the main character scene to scene (“is this a different storyline?” “No, that’s Tom Cruise again in a different outfit.”) Once failed to recognise my then-boyfriend because he was wearing a hat. That bad.

Over the years I have got a bit better at this, and I can sort of consciously ‘learn’ people’s faces if I see them regularly enough – “right, Sally has a longish face, nose that’s very narrow at the top, lots of smile lines round her eyes”, sort of thing. When I was teaching university students I had their student records with photos to help with this, which was handy – and I had other tricks up my sleeve, like noting down names on seating plans and getting people to use cardboard name-signs on the table for the first couple of weeks.

But now I’ve changed careers, and my classroom-based tricks aren’t helping so much. I get moved around different areas at work fairly regularly, I have meetings in different locations, and I need to build up networks of contacts and make links with people without having the advantage of student records systems or meeting people every day.

So, working from the assumption that even people who are good at faces find themselves in awkward why-is-this-apparent-stranger-calling-me-by-name? situations sometimes, I’m looking for any tips, techniques, or general advice you have about recognising and remembering people you don’t see every day.

(Also: we do have name badges at work! But alas, due to vision issues which are separate from the face recognition thing but probably don't help, I can't read anybody's unless I'm standing so close that it's very obvious I'm looking.)
posted by Catseye to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It really does sound like face blindness.

There are many places online you can test this hypothesis pretty easily to get a baseline understanding.
posted by chasles at 4:22 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question a few years ago and realized I am almost 100% reliant on eyes. I do super well at things like recognizing people by their baby pictures, but if someone is wearing a hat or sunglasses (or good lord, both) all bets are off. I can also generally recognize someone I know on an acquaintance level or higher from far away by gait alone (!?) but right in front of me with their face in a damn hat? No.

Pay attention and see if there's some small detail you're able to pick up on to help you instead of focusing on faces and starting to panic.

For the inevitable times I screw up or don't recognize someone, it goes down easier if you shellac it with a bit of silly explanation a la Homer Simpson's "you'll have to speak up, I'm wearing a towel." (Like, I've definitely said, "sorry I didn't recognize you, I'm wearing headphones.")
posted by phunniemee at 4:31 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was just thinking this - I have exactly the same problem. Like sometimes I think I'm going nuts. I once introduced myself to an intern at work and asked about his university and he burst out "I'VE MET YOU BEFORE WE'VE HAD THIS SAME CONVERSATION THREE TIMES!! WHY DON'T YOU REMEMBER ME?" I remembered him after that!

And yes if I meet them in a different setting then I get this weird feeling - my body is relaxed, so it's like my body remembers that they are not a stranger but my mind cannot place them at all.

Honestly a lot of people have non-descript faces. And soooo many actors look alike, especially supporting characters. They get those roles because they look like the "everyman" and "everywoman." Not everyone has stand out physical features, or a stand out personality.

My hack is to have an emotional spark with someone. It can be as small as "you like Star Trek? Me too!" Or "you have a kid who likes trucks? Me too!" Or maybe "you worked your way through university" or "you like music and play guitar in your spare time." Something personal, different. If this person is just "third of five" then yeah why would you remember them? They're not special to you. But if you make them special to you by some little detail that you find interesting then you will remember them. Some people I meet years later and they're shocked by what I remember of our conversation (I am too, it just comes to me) but it's because I found the conversation interesting for some reason.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:58 AM on April 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I too have this problem & also often work in a classroom setting, where name tags on desks etc help. Reading other responses I've realised I also use the 'be friendly to people who are friendly to me' tactic and hope I can work out who they are from context.

However I have also worked out, over my years of dealing with this, that the reason people get offended when they realise I don't remember them is that they think its personal - that I don't remember them in particular. So now I make it a standard part of introducing myself to cheerfully mention that I have a terrible memory & I'm really sorry, but I probably will forget their name, and please not to take it personally. I don't mention the part about finding it difficult to recognise their face, because I think a lot of people really find that difficult to understand, and so would derail the conversation rather. But I've had much fewer awkward situations of people being offended with me since I started doing this.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 5:29 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a lot like you! (I don't even try to watch movies anymore.) Some things that are somewhat helpful to me:

I recognize voices and walking gaits better than faces. If that's true of you too, remember to focus on those things when you meet someone.

I make mental guesses based on statistical probabilities of a particular person being in a particular context... location, clothing, saying a particular thing to me, etc. I don't do anything crazy like use their name, in case I'm wrong, but having a good guess of who I'm talking to helps me use that conversation to add to my knowledge and understanding of the individual that I can use to build a relationship with them.

Related, paying attention to someone such that you have a sort of story in your head about them helps me because once I do recognize them, I really KNOW who they are.

I never say "nice to meet you," relying instead on "nice to see you" in case I've met someone before.

If I'm with someone, I manage to get people's names via a casual introduction: say to the person with an unknown name, "oh, have you met ____," and they usually respond by introducing themself to the new person by name.

In some situations, like at a meeting somewhere youve only been to once or twice, you can say, "I know we've met before but I'm terrible with names; can we go around the room once just to make sure I don't misremember anybody?" This will let you remember who's who based on where they're sitting, and may help drill in the people you're starting to catch onto a little better.' People are less offended when you admit to being bad at their names than at recognizing them at all.

My natural tendency is not to look at faces very closely, because it seems sort of pointless, but even though it only helps marginally, it is more effective than just subconsciously giving up.
posted by metasarah at 5:30 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am, adorably, short sighted and amazingly engaged with everupyone professionally, because there have been too many damn times i spent 40 hours working on someone's thesis and had no clue who they were when they told me they passed. I have (as an incredibly socially anxious person) taken to greeting and conversing with everyone like we already know each other (because it is too often true). I ask them how things are going - if we know each other, great, and i often get a clue. If i don't, they will either do the polite thing - oh you know (the correct response i think is to laugh and say "boy, do i ever!") Or they will spill their guts when hopefully you catch a clue as to whether you know them. It doesn't always work, so the only thing to do is to listen like you care, and in properly listening, ask questions that invite them to share more information if they care to, or if appropriate to commiserate or congratulate them.

To my complete and utter surprise, when developing a behaviour to protect myself from social embarrassment, i have succeeded in doing what "how to win friends and influence people" never did for me. I am shockingly popular and almost universally well liked (except for that one woman who thought i wanted her job). No, seriously, it's weird. People like me A LOT which increases the problem because now there's more people who i don't recognise who think i know them. But the technique still works, and bonus! I seem to make people feel better.

When it happens that it is clearly obvious you have no idea who the person is, and that you had a meeting yesterday and promised something, you pull out the white lie - so sorry, distracted, insomnia, gall bladder, teenage kid, whatever and 99 times out of 100, even if people don't believe you, they will pretend they do, because you always listen to them, and gosh darn it, you really are a nice person, and they like you.

Oh and when you wave at someone you think you recognise and it turns out to be a stranger - keep waving and looking past them. They will think the error is theirs.

With movies, i read the plot first and use subtitles.

I'm sorry, i havent worked out how to make our brains do what they can't - just how to not upset them.
posted by b33j at 5:55 AM on April 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

My husband has prosapagnosia, aka face blindness.

Like you, he has tricks like asking students to use name cards -- thorough his face blindness is sufficiently profound that they use them for the whole class/semester.

In situations where he meets people, he's actually taken to being very upfront about his disability (and it is a disability, not just "rudeness" as some people seem to think). He tells people that he is face blind, and that he may not recognise them if they meet again, and asks them to please introduce themselves if they do meet again and where they met.

The hardest part for him is that he actually has a harder time remembering people and their names than would a blind person. The part of the brain used for facial recognition is also used for remembering identities. Someone who is visually impaired will not be impaired in this part of their brain, where his doesn't work properly.

Another strategy he has is that he puts symbols on his students' name cards which he can associate their name with, and thus build up memory of them (important when giving participation grades).
posted by jb at 6:14 AM on April 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oh, and my very capable important boss has another useful technique (strikingly similar now that i think about it). She heads a department of over 150 people, and there are also many people she used to teach, or she has met in some professional capacity and she just can't remember them all. She engages with them, is excited about what they have to say, is enthusiastic but non-committal about future plans (email my secretary to set up a meeting) and when they are out of earshot she asks a trusted sidekick (like myself) "who was that?"
posted by b33j at 6:16 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

And yes, he also does the thing where he smiles or waves at anyone who smiles at him, because he never knows if he knows them.
posted by jb at 6:16 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I work in a research group that runs training programs for people with developmental prosopagnosia, which you seem to have. My work isn't specifically related to the face-training programs, but I'll ask them and see if I can point you towards any clinically-tested resources.
posted by Cygnet at 6:37 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a professor in grad school who was very open about this disability and would write our names down and then draw pictures of our heads. He was not an art professor. Basically he drew in glasses, haircut, and facial hair. Maybe you can keep a work-related mini drawing pad at your desk?
posted by Maarika at 6:39 AM on April 8, 2016

My face recognition problem is not as serious as yours, but it takes several meetings before I can recognize most people. I've mostly given up trying hide it (other than, as others mentioned, being generally friendly). I just say, "what's your name again? Sorry, I'm terrible with names and faces." In your case you might just say, "I have a face recognition issue and appreciate name reminders."

You seem to be able to memorize to a degree, right? You may also consider, for people you'll regularly interact with, privately asking to get a quick photo of them with a neutral face, expressly not to be shared. You could then use an image editor to add a name banner (many smartphones can do this). Then you could study the face without staring in person. I've had someone take my picture for this purpose. The ubiquity of cameras has made this more acceptable, I think.
posted by zennie at 6:42 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

If it's appropriate, Facebook has actually really helped me with this. Something about the repetition of their name and face in different contexts -- and, with any luck, next to every comment -- and if you still forget, it often gives an excuse for a bit of fond silliness ("oh sorry, you're usually a tabby cat") that generally goes over well. The rest of everyone, I try really hard to spot unique and unchanging features. Personal stories on their own don't do a thing for me, and sometimes make it worse because then they think we're buddies and I still can't recognize them. And I hear you about the name tags. Again, it gets worse to be caught sneaking a peek in direct proportion to how badly you need to know.
posted by teremala at 6:44 AM on April 8, 2016

As smart as having photos or drawings of people that you need to recognise might seem, i have to say, that if a character changing clothes between scenes throws OP (i'm with you - love subtitles that include character's name), OP is NOT going to be abke to play snap. People don't look like their photos (to me), and you can't shuffle through 10+ photos and check and see if this bald person is the same as that important bald person - so also, this is where if you meet people away from your desk and they have something important to tell you - ask them to send an email for the paper trail, or so you have all the info, or because you have a terrible memory, is useful - especially as it comes with a name attached.

(I used to take pictures of my academics' students - tiny campus and create mini posters so the lecturers could learn their names. I (as admin then) also kept posters handy but never could match people up to themselves unless they had very unusual features - only person of strikingly different racial characteristics. All the people around the same age (late teens to early 20s) with same hair colour looked identical to me).
posted by b33j at 6:50 AM on April 8, 2016

I handle this by fessing up to it. "I'm sorry, I know I know you but I have a lot of trouble placing people if I run into them out of context," or "I'm sorry, I'm terrible with names, do you mind reminding me of yours?" Sometimes when I meet someone for the first time, I will say, "I am terrible at remembering names, so I'll probably need to ask you to remind me a few times." Literally nobody has ever said they were offended, or seemed at all offended. Many people respond by saying, "Oh, my goodness, me too." It helps, I suppose that as soon as they've given me a piece of information ("We met at homeschool park day," or "I'm so-and-so's mom from the gymnastics team.") I can place them and remember details about them. The face just isn't the piece of information that connects all these things for me.
posted by not that girl at 8:57 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would just be totally up front about it and stop wasting emotional energy on tricks and hacks or worrying about getting "found out" or accused of being rude. I wouldn't say that you're terrible with names, because you aren't. You can associate someone's name with details about them. You're terrible with faces. You might as well have a dog and a white cane when it comes to parsing facial features. Just tell people this using jb's partner's script, which sounds ideal.
posted by xyzzy at 9:40 AM on April 8, 2016

I have this problem as well, though maybe not as badly. I had so much anxiety about this when I started my job in a larger organization. I use the tricks in the first suggestion all the time - not using names (which makes me anxious even if they are correct!) and asking someone to send an email reminder if I'm not 100% sure who they are.

Other things I do:

1. I keep a spreadsheet of who I have met, with the date, location, context, a short physical description, and something we discussed or may have in common.

2. I think about (and try to gather) other information may help in conjunction with appearance, like who their boss is, where their office/cube is, and what project they are working on. These clues make me more confident about identifying them than if I just saw a face. Some ways I have gotten this info:
Ask if there's a possibility of creating a photo org chart.
Go for a walk around the office and drop in on people to say hi, taking in their nameplate on their door and their face. If this seems awkward, walk around with cookies. Nobody will question cookies.
Next time someone emails you and it is well-suited to an in-person response, find out where they are, then stop by and talk to them face to face.
posted by beyond_pink at 11:11 AM on April 8, 2016

In my experience, people get offended if they think you don't remember them, since you clearly didn't value your time with them... but not recognizing them is much more ok. More socially acceptable. So like many others here, I've taken to just cheerfully admitting I'm god awful with names and faces. If i do see someone a second time, asking about something we did the first meeting (after figuring out who they are, of course!) seems to smooth over any lingering uncomfortableness on their part.

Interestingly, I suspect I don't have prosopagnosia but dyscalculia, which can have similar effects. Odd.
posted by Jacen at 12:14 PM on April 8, 2016

Another face blind person here. If you can take their business card and draw their picture on it, that's great. I also tend to tell people that I've just met that I'm face blind.

When meeting someone, try to spend as much time as possible finding out their distinguishing features. Allow yourself to be rather critical about someone if that helps. This takes me around 30 minutes to an hour. If they wear a certain pair of shoes, jacket, or coat all the time, that's great.

I try three outstanding features: something on their face that won't change much (teeth? glasses? hair colour?), something on their body, and something about the way they move or walk. For example, my boss jingles when she walks, wears converses, and has brown hair in a bob with 50s style glasses.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 5:40 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am 100% in the same boat. It's excruciating to be recognized and mentally flail around for where on earth you know this person from and good lord what is their name.

This is more a commiseration because I'm still so bad at it, but there are a few things that I've done to help get by:

- let any surprise conversations with someone who obviously knows you just kind of happen, and ask open ended questions. Oh, well hello! I'm good, how are you? What have you been up to lately? About half of the time, whatever they talk about (or whoever they mention) will ding my memory and we can continue the conversation like normal people.

- when meeting anyone, anywhere, try to find a visual "hook" that will help you place them again. What celebrity do they resemble? Do they have a crazy wide gap in their teeth? Super thin eyebrows? I try to go by actual features rather than clothes or hair because those can change. Does that guy in accounting sound exactly like Bill Clinton?

- forgetting names is way better than forgetting who they are. If for some lucky reason I can remember them but not their name I say "I totally remember you from the [super specific way you know them and show that you recall them fondly] but I'm blanking on your name".

- if you are in a conversation with someone who totally knows you but you don't remember them at all, get them to email you [or get their email address!] something related to the conversation.

Hope that helps a bit, and at least you aren't alone...
posted by amicamentis at 8:32 AM on April 12, 2016

And oh yes, I have completely eliminated "Nice to meet you" from my vocabulary. "Nice to see you", sure, "How are you doing", but never "Nice to meet you". I've been burnt.
posted by amicamentis at 8:37 AM on April 12, 2016

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