While at work last month, I thought for a second that I was having double vision.

Then I realised that the silhouettes were not identical, and that the background was not duplicated. So, no double vision. Our school custodian did appear to have a Doppelgänger. I was seeing two slightly overweight, middle-aged white men, both of whom had the same short haircut, chin-beard & mustache. I think they both wear glasses, too. They’re about the same height, and neither has a very distinctive stride or voice. And of course, they both wear the same school custodian uniform.

Oy vey; I’ve worked there for over a year and never realised that we had two male custodians! This is one of those crushing faceblind moments, when I’ve been going along pretty well for a several weeks, identifying the people whom I need to, and feeling pretty competent. (Of course, I’ve no idea how many people that I didn’t realise that I needed to identify, but that weren’t critical.)

And then I have one of these schema-shaking moments. My entire understanding of my corner of the universe and my relationship to it has just been turned upside-down and jumbled. This is unnerving enough on its own, and most people can imagine such an experience at some level, as mistaken identity has formed the backbone to a number of dramatic or comedic plot lines. I’m also suffering from the not-unexpected social terror of wondering, “Did I address person #2 by person #1’s name at some time, or get confused when making some request or arrangement with either one of them?” Because hey, despite their low status in the official staff hierarchy, custodians are actually Very Important People in a school, right up there with the office secretary*.

What most people cannot relate to is that just because I am now aware that there are two similar-looking people, that I won’t be able to tell them apart in the future, either reliably or at all! Now what I have to do is to find out their respective names, and figure out how to distinguish between the two of them. This won’t be easy, because I don’t see either one on a regular basis.

You might think that having these two guys in uniforms would be helpful, because it automatically denotes them as being the Custodians, as opposed to the Chef’s program instructors, or Small Engine Repair program instructors, or any number of other school staff members. But in reality I hate uniforms, because they remove an entire data layer from my identification sets. Left to their own devices, individual people usually wear particular styles of clothing. Uniforms make people, well, way too uniform! In the movie Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith (Agents K and J, respectively) are both wearing identical black suits and dark sunglasses and both have dark hair, but at least they have rather different skin color. At work, our SRO (School Resource Officer) wears a uniform, but he’s the only police officer around. Because of that, I’ve been able to get Officer H “patterned” for his gait, voice and such, so I could distinguish him from the other officer that came one day to give a presentation to the students. I would however, be very hard-pressed to pick out Officer H’s face from either a group photo or a room full of his peers, all in their uniforms and short haircuts.

In contrast, I love ID badges, leastwise, if people wear them where they are actually legible. Of course, most people wear their ID badges dangling on lanyards or clipped to the bottom of a jacket or a waistband, so the cards are invariably backwards or bouncing around so much there’s no hope of reading the relatively small type with their name. Their official name that is — lots of people are addressed by a nickname or a familiar short version of their legal name.

Voices are a big deal in my identification sets. Oft times I think I am identifying an actor, when really I’m just recognising their voice. (Some actors are otherwise distinctive, like Arnold Schwarzenneger with his square jaw, but even his voice … !) I hear Harrison Ford’s voice, then I see a man with a scar on his chin, and I know that’s Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the Star Wars movies, or as Indiana Jones is easy to keep track of, because he rarely wears anything but the one distinctive costume. Harrison Ford as Dr Richard Kimble in The Fugitive is much more difficult to keep track of, especially as he goes into hiding and shaves off his beard. Of course, the experienced faceblind movie-watcher relies on the camera following the protagonists, so we know that if the camera is closely tailing some middle-aged guy, chances are it’s Ford, and we can be sure of that when he speaks up. The camera also spends time following Tommy Lee Jones in his role as Marshal Gerard (who in turn is following Dr Kimble), but Jones has the dark hair, which is a saving grace, because both Ford and Jones are white males with “craggy” faces.

Back to sorting out the white males at work. Although there’s a poster in the school office with names and photographs of people who work there, I am terrible at making the connections between a still shot of a person and the real, live person. Obviously, people have the habit of changing hairstyles and colors. Less obviously, I identify people by their voice, gait, particular mannerism, or overall body silhouette, and those don’t exist in still photography, especially with the kinds of pix most people take that are modelled after sculpture busts. Silly normal people take pictures of other people’s faces! Oh woe is me.

There are also a couple of young paras (teaching paraprofessionals) with whom I work on a daily basis that are difficult for me to tell apart. Para C has a tattoo on her neck, but it’s often hidden by her hair, and Para L has slightly more pronounced cheekbones. Otherwise they’re in the same age range, roughly the same height and build, and have similar hair. They’re both of the habit of dying their hair with accents and such, which requires me to make frequent mental updates once I’ve finally re-determined who’s who.

If Paras C and L are near each other, I can compare them and figure them out after some eight or ten seconds of cogitation. Ten seconds sounds like nothing, but it’s actually a very long time in the social world, especially in light of the fact that everyone else does this in less than a second. Everyone else also does this nifty trick unconsciously; meanwhile, I am there with my cognitive efforts focused on this task, which means that I’m not paying much attention to anything else going on, such as the understanding the verbal conversation, or trying to figure out the nonverbal interactions going on, sticking the useful facts from the conversation into memory, or monitoring what the students are doing. Because it takes so long for me to distinguish the two, oft times I’ll be trying to recount an incident with one of our students, and can only remember that one of those two staff members was present, but not which one it was.

As the custodians, paras, and officers illustrate, I tend to organise my mental people-ID files into categories. Naturally, some of those data sets are organised by place — I expect to see particular people in specific places, so that considerably reduces the number of options that I must sort through.

It’s not that everyone looks identical, but rather that people exist in different “types” of indistinguishable individuals. Even within particular locations there are categories of similar people that all fit a particular profile or type. These “types” aren’t just by age and gender; their build and hairstyle and other accessory features tend to be profoundly similar, at least to me. Our school custodians could be out of uniform and still look “just like” hundreds of other middle-aged males in the metropolitan area. When I was young, Art Linkletter, Richard Nixon, David Brinkley and Ed Sullivan were all Old-men-in-suits seen on television (if those were Brooks Brothers suits, then they’d be the human subspecies Senatorius brooksii or some such), and all were indistinguishable from each other, at least until they spoke.

There are a wide variety of types. Toddlers comprise just a few subtypes, which may be why doting parents are so insistent on putting them into cute little outfits to make them look “special”. An amazing number of teenage girls fall into just a few types, such as those who play softball and invariably wear their hair in ponytails. They really do all look the same to me, which isn’t something I can really say to a proud parent who’s pointing out her daughter on the field, or his daughter in a team photograph. All but two girls in that photograph seemed to fit Doting Papa’s description of, “Oh, she’s the one with the brown ponytail, and her mother’s smile.” The rest could easily have been clones, which unsettling sensation was not helped by the fact that they were all wearing the same uniform.

There are many, many types, and those types change over space and time. If you look through photos in school yearbooks from decades past, you can easily see the repetitions of types that were reinforced by clothing and hair styles of the day. Now take that sense of typecasting and apply it to modern times and places. It probably won’t happen quite the same for you — today is “modern”, and you know your extended family, neighbors, work associates, and can recognise local shopkeepers and other business employees as being people whom you’ve seen a number of times before.

When people travel to markedly different geographic locations, one of the unnerving forms of disorientation is that you’ve not yet mentally mapped the swarms of people into different types, and figured out how to distinguish between individuals. Doubtless you do this (quite unconsciously) in the short period of time from when you’ve disembarked from the jetway, gone through customs, retrieved your luggage, and commuted to your hotel room. As for me, I’m still struggling to typecast people a week later.

And apparently, to distinguish between two people of the same type over a year later. ::sigh::

* When I was in graduate school, one of the students was impressed that I had a keyring with a dozen different keys on it, “Wow, you must be important!” “Not really,” I replied, “I can only get into specific rooms. The custodian is a Very Important Person, because she gets the key that opens all the doors.” I was always sure to let the custodian know that she was welcome to a piece of the latest baked goodie I’d brought in, and she in turn was always helpful for letting me in my rooms when I’d forgotten my keyring, or other small favours.


  1. Katharina said,

    8 February 2011 at 11:33

    “that everyone else does this in less than a second” – I would say less than a tenth of a second, or even faster. Even if I meet someone I have learned to recognize and recognize quickly – say, a good friend – it still takes me a good part of a second to make the mental calculation, complete with double check. (Double check is the more necessary the better you know the person. It’s ok to smile noncomittally to someone you don’t know, but you shouldn’t grin happily and hug them…) This is exactly the half-second the other person uses to realize you don’t look pleased to see them. Even if you smile as soon as you’ve completed your double-check – it’s not a ‘real’ smile anymore, it’s ‘faked’. So your friend thinks you’re either grumpy or don’t like her. This may be another reason why prosos usually don’t have more than one or two friends.

  2. Katharina said,

    8 February 2011 at 11:15

    I can totally feel with the second paragraph: the crushing realization that you have failed again, and probably made a fool of yourself several times without realizing it.

    But I’ve also done it the other way round: I thought we had two neighbours, let’s call them Mr. X and Mr. Z, one with wife X and one with wife Z. Then, after a few weeks, I realized they were really looking very similar, even for my standards. I asked my husband, and he told me that there was only a Mr. X, and ‘wife’ Z didn’t even have a husband anymore… that could have been embarrassing. Fortunately I’ve learned never to use names when I can avoid it. That way, people never suspect they’ve been mentally cut in two by me (or morphed into one with someone completely different).

  3. Trish said,

    27 December 2009 at 19:35

    Mr. H was my teacher assistant for 38 minutes a day. He was replaced by Mr. J- but in the beginning, I often called him Mr. H. Everyone laughed when I said it was because they looked alike! Mr. H was 22 and black and Mr. J was in his 60’s and white- but they were both very tall and that’s how I recognized them.
    Thanks for writing about prosopagnosia.

  4. 12 October 2008 at 19:36

    I remember once when I was a kid, my father got angry with me for saying I didn’t like the Sean Connery James Bond movies because I couldn’t tell him apart from the villains. They were all just dark-haired white men in black suits to me! At least Roger Moore’s Bond usually wore a white jacket– no trouble telling him apart from all the other dark-haired white men! I don’t think I ever had true prosopagnosia, but I did have a heck of a time differentiating people on a screen vs. in real life when I could observe more mannerisms.

  5. chaoticidealism said,

    12 October 2008 at 18:39

    I worked at a church for four months before I realized the three secretaries weren’t all the same person! Oops….

  6. Sara A. said,

    3 July 2008 at 15:45

    I work at a laundromat, and when I have to identify a customer to a coworker I almost invariably will describe their habits and then mimic their gait. It’s a lovely thing to have face-blindness be a positive for once! (Describing someone as that 22 year old blond guy with short hair would be utterly useless)

    A customer recently expressed sedness that I didn’t notice the cosmetic surgery he recently had, and I confessed that I recognized him by voice and gait, which are both very distinctive to him. But I blamed it on a habit developed from poor vision in childhood. It’s easier.

    I also developed the habit of saying “I remember you but not your name” which people take as much more complimentary than my otherwise puzzled blankness while I try to remember where I’ve heard that voice before. It nearly always prompts them to give me both their name and how we met, and saves face (so to speak) for us both.

    Thank you for these posts on prosopagnosia. Despite the fact that my dreams have never had faces, I never knew this was a reality other people lived with.

  7. Yvette said,

    16 January 2008 at 23:30

    Hello, Andrea. I am writing a research paper on Typecasting. I used one of your quotes, the one about “Having these two guys in uniforms… other school staff members” I credited you, but left the last name part blank. Would you be willing to please tell me your last name so I could fully credit you? I am willing to email you a copy of my paper for sole proof. Please let me know, Thanks.
    Yvette Rios

  8. Dan said,

    23 July 2007 at 2:13

    Oh, BTW, confusing two people for one was one of the things I used to kick myself mentally for SOOO hard! It’s nice to know WHY, now.

  9. Dan said,

    23 July 2007 at 2:10

    I’ve recently learned that I am a prosopagnosic, but unlike you I seem to subconsciously LOVE uniforms. I’ve always gravitated toward working in hotels, I now realize, because the uniforms divide all the employees into easily distinguishable departments. So, I only have to identify this individual from the few others in their department, instead of from ALL the employees in the whole hotel. My subconscious can be so smart sometimes. :-)

  10. Catana said,

    29 May 2007 at 21:17

    I never thought about why I’ve always hated uniforms, except that they make people look so…. uniform. LOL. Ditto buzz cuts. But I don’t think I’ve ever mistaken two different people for the same one. On the other hand, how the heck would I even know?

    I’m sure the average person doesn’t think about faces in terms of types, but it was always perfectly clear to me, long before I learned about prosopagnosia and found out that I’m mildly face blind.

    My most bizarre experience recently was watching The Good Shepherd and having no idea until the end of the movie that the wife was played by Angelina Jolie. I thought she was distinctive enough that I’d never have a problem recognizing her, but apparently not.

  11. Mike Stanton said,

    21 May 2007 at 22:44

    I have the same problem with so much TV. How many ditzy blondes or hunky men can they cram into a single episode? Radio is so much easier because I only have the voices to go on and not the visual similitude.

  12. Ms. Clark said,

    21 May 2007 at 2:46

    Maybe one janitor favors a particular kind of boot or shoe.

    I’m bad at remembering names, I’ll forgo a social remark, turn on my heel and go hide somewhere rather than deal wtih the fact that I have to apologize for not remembering a name.

    I can’t imagine coping with prosopagnosia, my other social ineptitudes are bad enough. :-)

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