Social Captioning

Hubby & I were taking a walk down the neighborhood park pathway. After several “hundred-year-advent floods” that happened within the same decade, the diverse planning committees finally realised that the streamway areas will flood and that it’s easier to work with nature, therefore, they shouldn’t allow building permits in these zones. Instead, they created public use areas that can more-or-less withstand periodic flooding, turning them into neighborhood parks with extensive pathways connecting them like green arteries snaking across the county. The pathway is tarmacked, following the winding curves of the steam, and nicely shaded. Bicyclists, rollerbladers, pedestrians, children seeking adventure, and dog-walkers all use these trails.

Shade also means increased cover, so what one gains in relief from sun exposure one loses in breezes to cool the skin and disperse personal clouds of gnats. I keep forgetting how this obnoxious part of summer affects me personally. Unless most people, I don’t quite have that marching gait where I swing my arms when walking, but am more inclined to hold my free hand(s) near my chest. This means that the insides of my elbows get obnoxiously sweaty and uncomfortably sticky because the tee shirt sleeves don’t reach that far (perhaps I need to apply a couple extra dabs of antiperspirant). On the other hand, it’s easier to reach over and gently nab my husband’s elbow and pull him close to me, which I do a number of times.

The first time, he protests, “I’m on the right side of the middle!” Indeed, he is more capable of walking in a straight line than I am. Every now and then I trip over my feet, running into curbs or wobbling onto turf.

“On your left!” announces an approaching bicyclist behind us. I nab hubby’s elbow and nod, which reason becomes apparent to him as the cyclist zips past us. Just as hubby cannot usually hear the approaching zzzZZZZ of bike tires, he also usually doesn’t hear or sometimes doesn’t understand the verbal warnings.

“I’m captioning your environment,” I explain to him. Sometimes on our walks I will add comments about flocks of small birds twittering, describe my surprise at hearing an approaching military helicopter before it’s in visual range, mention the hum of contented bees working a patch of wildflowers, or note the tinny music of the unseen ice cream truck that causes a sudden diversion in the flocking of children on the playground. At home I will announce, “Doorbell! Telephone! Cat wants in!” even when people can hear such themselves, just out of habit. It probably annoys people at times, but annoying each other is one of the things at which all family members excel, due to over-familiarity.

The bicyclist zips out of sight around the next bend. “Just like you caption my social environment,” I add, thinking aloud. Like most people, he can not only recognise people and recall their names, but also keep track of the minutiae of the significant factors of their personal and professional lives, and how those things are important to them. He unconsciously and automatically creates and accesses an entire databank of social information. Of course, his personal databank is slightly reduced by his hearing loss — he misses the easyness of chit-chat and over-hearing bits, and avoids socialising in noisy places. In those regards, I catch more of my verbal environment, auditory processing issues notwithstanding. But despite his hearing loss, he notices, perceives, and interprets those verbal and nonverbal social interactions that I either miss or don’t fully appreciate.

The primary problem of being faceblind is not only do I not recognise people — rather, I have to consciously identify them — but that my abilities to do so fade over time, so people whom I used to be able to figure out will become strangers again for lack of regular contact. The secondary, and somewhat insidious part of being faceblind is that it plays hell with “networking”. I never know as many of my coworkers or peers when I am around them, and cannot keep track of them later on as useful contacts.

When I interview for jobs, talk to people at conferences, or attend meetings it is profoundly difficult for me to remember with whom I spoke, even though I write down names and titles. I’ve tried taking down covert notes, like “Mr M: mustache, coördinates program, office 2nd floor”. But then later on I find that knowing Mr M has a mustache isn’t useful, because later on I will be around two more mustached guys of the same “type” who are all in the same environment, and that I never talk with Mr M in his office on the 2nd floor. I will later come to know Mr M by the particular shape of his balding pate and the way he wears his mobile phone on his belt, but when I am taking those notes, those are not the features that are first noticeable.

There’s also a Ms B at the meeting, but I won’t know until a month later that she was the one whom I really needed to “map” out as a contact. Yet another month more after that realisation, I will finally ascertain that she was one of the people with whom I chatted at that initial meeting. Making that important connection required a lot of careful analysis, drawing connections and ruling out confounds between dissimilar data sets, as though I am playing a particularly difficult level of Sudoku involving personnel instead of numbers. In a Sudoku game, there’s always a ninth that has just a couple of numbers provided, so it’s the square with the numbers that are filled in last, through pains-taking analyses of extensive subsets of if-then algorithms.

As my social networks are likewise built upon masses of indirect evidence, my social cues are also constructed in such a manner, like the astronomical databases of distant bodies where planets and moons are initially inferred by faint orbital wobbles and confirmed by parallax. I miss some of the conversational cues, such as being prone to taking things literally, and from that split-second I require to determine that someone was “just funning” instead of being serious, I am then half a step off-beat with the conversational dance. I suspect there are other things going on, those nonverbal communiqués of posture, glance, expression and gesture, that run like personal underwater currents that flow between pairs of people, even when they are otherwise engaged in socialising in groups. These are the clues to mental states and relationships that I miss unless I am actively observing and analysing their conversational triangulations and trilateration.

And yet, it’s not that I cannot learn to identify people, or that I cannot follow conversations, or that I cannot recall my own knowledge and express it coherently to others, or that I cannot catch a lot of the nonverbal dialog happening in groups. It’s that I cannot do all these things simultaneously — it takes up too much processing power running all of these functions on the conscious level.

It makes my own participation so much easier if my hubby can mention to me who people are and how I would know them, and update me as to what is going on in their lives that will likely be relevant to current events. Later on, he gives me some summaries about what he saw happening, and how he perceived others’ current states. Interestingly, we sometimes differ upon the interpretations, as my observations are less coloured by what I expect to see. This is because I have fewer predetermined “stories” about what is going on. So often in social environments people are prejudiced; they hear what they want to hear, they see what they expect to see, and they default to the current set of cultural signifieds about what things are “supposed to mean” and what is “really going on”. Lacking some of that acculturation, my observations can sometimes be deficient, but sometimes they are more objective.

Like receivers set to different wavelength ranges, we provide each other with slightly different and often complementary composites, which are then reduced to informative bytes of environmental and social captioning. It’s an unexpected and uncommon benefit to a relationship between two people with differing disabilities. One of our strengths as a couple is that we are so different from each other. It’s not that one of us must “make up for” the deficiencies of the other — that would put us into artificial dichotomies of able and disabled, forever relying upon the other in our respective rôles of an incomplete person needing the other to complete them. Rather, it’s that each of us could manage alone as competent individuals, but that together we enrich the other’s experiences of the world.


  1. maelstrom143 said,

    15 March 2017 at 5:43

    Reblogged this on maelstrom143.

  2. Gina said,

    3 September 2009 at 23:02

    Hi I am 14 and just starting High School. I listened to my Mom read your articles. I have capd and go through the same things every day. Its very hard for me to understand what people are saying all the time and sometimes it drives me insane. I do also hear sounds that other people don’t and sometimes they drive me crazy. I am glad to know there are other people that have the same difficulties i do. It really makes me feel better to share these experiences with others. I really hope you write more blogs.

  3. Karen Putz said,

    19 July 2007 at 23:42

    Fascinating indeed–I have never heard of face blind– I learned something today!

  4. Steve D said,

    15 July 2007 at 3:16

    Fascinating post as always, Andrea.
    Umm, I hope you don’t mind, but I tagged you with this meme.


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