A few weeks ago I was teaching one of my gardening classes when a student came up to me during break and identified herself to me again. I’d already taken roll at the beginning of class by way of having the students tell me their names, as no one ever mispronounces their own name. Despite having heard her say her name and also seeing in print where I’d checked it on my roster, I hadn’t made that connection.
I know her. Or, knew her — we’d had a class together about eight years ago. Once she pointed that out, I recognised the name as being familiar, and excused myself by way of saying that I’m really bad at remembering faces. We asked each other polite little questions about what the other was doing now, and then break time was over and I diverted my attention back to teaching.
Every day for a semester, we’d sat together at the same lab table. During a school semester, I will generally learn to identify a student or two. A handful of other students will be familiar upon seeing them in the classroom, or out in the hallway studying before class. The teacher I will remember after the semester, at least for several months afterwards.
But people who don’t repeat during my lifetime will fade from my ability to identify them.
The ordinary person might not be surprised that it’s hard to recognise the once-a-year people. I see my departmental secretary maybe twice a year, as I only teach after business hours. I don’t know who she is when I see her any more than I know who my ophthamologist is, except for the fact that I expect to meet someone matching a couple of the vaguest identifiers when I am in their respective offices.
It’s the people who were regular satellites in my days, whom I saw for months on end, that everyone assumes I “ought” to be able to remember. And I do remember that there were such people in my life. Given a couple minutes, I can usually dredge up a name from memory. But no matter how many hours I spent with them for a few days a week, these people are more like comets than distant moons in the solar system of my life. They exist in the firmament, bright and notable for a period of time, then disappear from view and fade away.
A great portion of the inability to know these people later on is that one of my main mental crutches for identifying people, that large portion of the “likelihood set” for meeting someone, is the location. Once the class is over, once I am no longer working for that company, once I no longer attend meetings at that same time and place, I don’t have that necessary cue for distinguishing between the people whom I expected to see there.
Even then, I’m often fuzzy on personal details. I learn to associate names with sets of nonfacial characteristics. But figuring out who’s who during my first weeks, and then tracking the changes in those identifiers (new haircuts, glasses, major wardrobe changes, weight loss and such) keeps a large portion of my awareness busy. When you spend time just learning to identify people, there’s less time and energy available for absorbing the personal details that help create interpersonal bonds. These things other people do so easily, so unconsciously, recognising each other, engaging in chit-chat, and following the changing group social dynamics, are things that I do consciously. Some days I’m too focused on work to spend the extra effort required to puzzle out what’s going on in the “soap opera” side of the business world.
The next week one of my students was someone who had attended the same church a couple decades ago. How in the world do people remember these sheer numbers of individuals they saw briefly once a week, oh so long ago? Knowing who is who, what they used to do, the details of their personal lives, who they used to work with, their particular skills, and their social connections, all attached to their faces, is just too much. Artificial memory aids don’t help me; it does me no good to collect pictures of people or yearbooks or business cards with photographs as I can’t recognise people from their ID photos.
Faceblindness not only makes immediate daily life more difficult; it also plays hell with networking. There are literally hundreds of people out there who know who I am when they meet me again. But I am adrift, wandering through life surrounded by crowds of effective strangers. I can hardly keep track of them when I am with them. When my hubby forwards me newsbits about how a large percentage of jobs are acquired through networking rather than the anonymous process of filling out forms, I can but sigh heartily. It’s not that I don’t care about people. It’s not that I’m not friendly, or helpful. I get excellent employee reviews. But the sad fact is that I cannot remember masses of people well enough to keep track of them.
For the faceblind, networking is all work, and not much net. There’s especially little social “safety net” when one has more “know-how” than “know-who”.