I need to write a letter to my boss*

[* THIS POST IS A PART OF BLOGGING AGAINST DISABLISM DAY 2010]

Or perhaps, just deliver an explanatory document to my boss and the HR (Human Resources) person at my second job.

My annual review was okay; very good on some things, okay on others, some recommendations (there always are — no one is perfect after all).  But something mentioned was to get to know the regular customers by name.  I have, after all, been here a year, and grocery stores have a core set of regular customers that come through once, if not several times, a week.  It’s not hard to learn names when you’re checking them out, as the names appear on their check or on the register (till) screen when they use a debit or credit card.

But of course, most people have no difficulty distinguishing or remembering faces.

I on the other hand, have that lovely invisible disability of prosopagnosia, or face-blindness.  I don’t recognize people by their faces.  I cannot easily or quickly identify people.  And, I cannot remember faces.  Sure, I’ve learned to (consciously, relatively slowly) identify a core set of the people with whom I work regularly.  I know my immediate bosses, the store manager, some of the other managers, and several of the checkers and sackers, a few stockers, and one each of several butchers, florists, pharmacists, and cooks.

But they are likely less than 25% of the total employees.  I’m not sure how many there really are, because part-timers tend to come and go, and also, to me the other employees form a general mass of generic persons, all of whom follow the same prescribed dress code.

Ah yes, the dress code.  The great thing about jobs I have is that the school and the grocery both require people to wear name tags.  Not only can I be sure with whom I’m speaking, but they also allow me to check and memorize the names once I have figured out how to identify that person regularly.  Whee!

But, unlike the school, the grocery has a dress code.  It’s not overly fastidious, just along the lines of slacks + collared shirt, except when we are to wear a specific color of shirt on Fridays & weekends.  Of course, there’s a down side — when I need to find say, my assistant manager to ask him a question, there’s an entire giant supermarket just riddled with people in blue button-down or polo [golf, tennis] shirts — and some of those are customers!

I cannot just glance over a crowd of people and instantly spot the person I need.  They don’t “pop out”.  (No, not even my family members!)  Instead, I must examine each person and compare their overall size, haircut, gender, and coloration to my mental gestalt.  Of course, it’s easier if I’m looking for say, a taller, brown person — that means I only have to scan each aisle for (1) blue shirts, (2) tall people, (3) brown-skinned people, and (4) the particular haircut, gait and voice that is one of the assistant managers.

That sounds fairly easy, or at least efficient, right?  But that’s still walking down some 15+ aisles and side-aisles, visually sorting each adult-size person.  And quite possibly the guy’s in the back scanning office or stock room or upstairs office or break room or in a restroom or retrieving something from the outside loading dock or where-ever-the-hell managers go when they go poof and disappear.

Thank heavens I can get on the intercom and page him to call extension 137 or whatever.  In turn, when I’m needed to be an extra checker or to meet with someone, the various managers have been very nice about paging me by my name-and-department or by my whole name.  I’ve not really bothered to explain the whole Auditory Processing Disorder thing; I’ve just said that it’s hard for me to understand the pages sometimes, especially if my head’s down in a refrigerated case  with its noisy fans, or I’m in the back room pulling stuff out of shipping cartons.

But you know, it’s difficult to explain faceblindness in 25-words-or-less.  No one’s heard of it, and the fact that I can in some manner still identify some people enough of the time makes it even more baffling to people.  And of course, there’s the old, “Oh, I have trouble remembering names and faces sometimes, too.”

Well, yeah.  But you still recognize people, in a split-second of unconscious thought.  You are aware that you know these people.  You may even know where you know all those people from. You just have trouble remembering the names that go with those faces.

I never do.  And except for the couple-dozen very morphologically distinctive customers, I’m not likely to remember any of them.

Silly people, they keep changing their physical characteristics, wearing different clothes through the seasons, changing their hairstyles, their purses, their hats or glasses, and so on.  Sometimes they have family members with them, and sometimes not.  Their children have this incredible ability to grow and morph dramatically.  And of course, the customers keep changing the details of how they interact with me, and will need my help finding something in one aisle or another, or check out at different times of day, or whatever.  Good heavens, sometimes people whom I know from other parts of my life will come through — the pharmacist will be shopping in their street clothes instead of standing behind their counter in a lab coat, my neighbor, or a former student will greet me, and they usually expect me to know them when they are out of their usual environments.  (At least my ophthalmologist understands that I’ve hardly ever seen him with my glasses on.)

Alas, the world is too full of generic people seen on an intermittent basis.  Once in a great while, somebody comes by to ask me a question, and it isn’t until they begin to speak to me that everything clicks, and I realize this is my daughter or son-in-law!

I’m really quite helpful to customers, am conscientious about getting the stock rotated and shelved with the right price tag, do a great job of setting up displays, make a point to be sure that the back stock is checked so it gets on the floor, am careful when bagging so the cold items are together and the eggs are all okay and the bread and produce doesn’t get squished, and so on.

It’s just that I will never be able to learn very many customers, or even all the employees.  And much as I would like to have this magical skill that 98% of the rest of the population has, my disability is far outweighed by all the other things that I can do well.  I’m not lazy or stupid.  It’s just that I have an invisible disability.

18 Comments

  1. Galina Wloch said,

    29 April 2012 at 5:13

    Hi, i think that i saw you visited my web site thus i came to “return the favor”.I’m trying to find things to enhance my site!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

  2. 26 May 2011 at 8:43

    […] I need to write a letter to my boss* (qw88nb88.wordpress.com) […]

  3. 12 January 2011 at 19:57

    Great input. Thanks

  4. Pavel said,

    12 January 2011 at 0:36

    Even healthy people have often problems with distinguishing faces of asians, especially if they live where few of them live. It may help you with explaining your disability.

  5. sortof said,

    15 May 2010 at 20:57

    Yes, write that letter! It gives you legal protection as well as increasing understanding. And then your bosses will know that you have the legal protection- legal protection is valuable even in situations where you would never think to hire a lawyer.

    The part about the son or daughter-in-law really helps. I think for people who easily remember faces, a person not recognizing them can come across as indication that that person didn’t notice them, see them, or care about them- since for those of us who recognize faces easily, we pick up the ones we care about more quickly, just as anyone learns information faster when they care about it. If you point out that you don’t know the faces of people you care about deeply, it instantly becomes clearer that this is not personal, that it is a physical blindness that you can’t change.

  6. Riayn said,

    12 May 2010 at 1:59

    You should definitely write that letter. I know that telling people about our disabilities is fraught with difficulties – we don’t want people to prejudice us because of them but also we don’t want them to think we are not trying or lazy if they aren’t aware of them.

  7. Jan S said,

    8 May 2010 at 19:04

    I didn’t know this condition existed, so thanks for the informative post. I came here via Angry Black Woman. :) Apologies if this is an ignorant thot, but I wonder whether a letter from your diagnosing doctor, added to you personnel file at each job, would help or hurt the situation. I can see pros *and* cons to this idea. I’m deaf in my left ear and I (perhaps naively) would want an employer and co-workers to know this, to avoid misunderstandings.

  8. Damon Lord said,

    8 May 2010 at 0:59

    Hi, came here on the BADD tourbus. I have a similar issue, I can’t tell faces and people well, but it’s a visual impairment in my case. Even though my colleagues are made aware of this, they often overlook this so I can understand how frustrated you feel in the workplace.

    I use little mental post-it notes (as I call them) and listen to the person’s voice much more carefully and use that instead of visual clues, so I can listen to them and the auditory clues inform me (in my head to myself), when they say hi and expect me to recognise them, “ah yes, he’s the deep voiced one with whom I joked about dancing last time”, etc.

    Thanks for a great blogpost, and hope to see you on the BADD tour next year!

  9. NTE said,

    6 May 2010 at 1:55

    I think you did a great job of explaining it here, and would forward it/give a hard copy to your boss… just so they can have a true understanding that it is not just “I have trouble remembering where I know people from, sometimes, too”. I don’t know how comfortable you are, disclosing this at work, but if it’s something you’re thinking about doing, I think you wrote an excellent summary of the challenges you’re facing, and why.

  10. Peter B said,

    5 May 2010 at 5:03

    Andrea Shettle (#2) and I have somewhat the same problem. I always said that I can never remember a name but I always forget a face. My father had much the same problem.

    Case in point: When I was 20 I served in a Baptist Home Missions effort. We were 30 collage age young people who were together for 12+ hours a day for 6 weeks of training(*). Every time we sat down to eat I wrote the names of my peers on a napkin as a seating chart. At the end of 6 weeks I had most but not all of the names and faces associated. Everybody else it seemed got all the names and faces in a day or two.

    (*) The training was in how to do kid’s meetings, cults, Bible knowledge, manners (let everything be done decently and in order – 1Cor 14:40) and a bit of “let’s be a choir.” Also really practical matters like if you want to stand on the communion table for any reason be sure to ask the pastor first. (In some Baptist churches that table is sacred; in most it’s just a piece of furniture.)

  11. Stephanie said,

    4 May 2010 at 23:21

    I’d have to agree with kmom. Besides, when you’re reading it off a cheque, it seems very artificial. It’s an attempt to generate the “we really know you” feeling that you get at mom’n’pop shops. But they really don’t, so why pretend?

  12. kmom said,

    4 May 2010 at 2:53

    BTW, there is only one employee at the grocery store I frequent that calls me by name. I found it disconcerting because I really couldn’t remember who she was even though her first name was on her name tag.
    It was handy, she’d call me by name to come to her newly opening check out line, but it bothered me that she knew my name. I thought I should know her!
    Finally, it came to me. She used to work in the pharmacy (where I am well known, although they don’t call me by my name either!) and she has read my name on many prescriptions.
    I still feel a little disconcerted that she recognises me and knows my name!
    So, not all customers really want to be called by their names. Unless they are truly a friend or relative.

  13. scrumptious said,

    3 May 2010 at 21:58

    This is an amazing post! (I found you through BADD.) Thanks for sharing this! Your articulate description of both your internal and external process gave me the fullest understanding I’ve ever had of prosopagnosia, which is a true gift, so thank you.

  14. Maggie said,

    3 May 2010 at 20:30

    What Stephanie said! … and I hope you’ll include the paragraph above in which you mentioned not always recognizing your daughter and son-in-law. That’s the jolt needed to convey to those who haven’t heard of prosopagnosia that it’s different from ‘trouble remembering names’ that ‘everyone’ has.

    If that doesn’t get them to realize you’re not going to learn the customers’ names, nothing will.

    (But I’m betting it works).

    Thanks for this enlightening post!

  15. Stephanie said,

    3 May 2010 at 0:57

    Write that letter! Ask them to keep it on file, too. That way if staff rotates faster than you do, you have a record in your file that this issue has been addressed.

  16. Sara K. said,

    3 May 2010 at 0:17

    Great post! (Came here via BADD)

  17. 2 May 2010 at 17:09

    “And of course, there’s the old, “Oh, I have trouble remembering names and faces sometimes, too.””

    ————-

    I have a mild form of prosopagnosia myself. It is mild in that I CAN learn to recognize faces … but it takes me more repeated exposure than it does for the average person, and if I’m not exposed to them as much any more then I forget their face more quickly so that people immediately recognize ME 10 years after we last saw each other, but it takes me a few minutes longer to place them. And when I do, I might STILL not place their FACE, just their name, or the context in which we knew each other, or even their signing style (deaf people have distinctive signing styles in the same way that hearing people have distinctive voices).

    It took me years to understand that there was something different in the way I process and remember faces compared to other people. I think I was in my teens before I started to grasp that there was a difference. Aside from one particular incident that helped drive it home to me, there were a lot of little moments along the way that helped me understand that others seem to find it easier to remember faces. One of these little moments that comes up often is if I try to tell people, “I have trouble remembering faces.” The common reaction I get is, of course, “Yes, I have trouble remembering names, too.” Which is a non-sequitor because I wasn’t talking about NAMES. If I try to amplify, No I’m not talking about remembering names I’m talking about remembering faces, then I would find that some people simply remained confused and couldn’t seem to parse the concept — as if it were too far outside of their experience to grasp — and others, if they DID parse the concept, would react surprised. Repeated experiences like this over the years made me understand that not only did most of the people I meet not share my difficulty with faces but that most of the people THEY knew didn’t share that difficulty either, or they wouldn’t have had as much reason to be surprised.

  18. 2 May 2010 at 13:47

    I’ve always said that war veterans AND their families have “scars that don’t show.” Some disabilities are always invisible and some disabilities play hide and seek like fibromyalgia and MS.


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