It’s time to face facts on why I can’t remember people
If I know you, I’ve probably lied to you - or at the very least misled you. And it’s time for me to own up. The second time we met, I probably didn’t recognise you, but pretended I did. You see, I’m bad with faces. Really bad with faces. It’s also called prosopagnosia.
Which isn’t a good trait for a journalist. So I bluff. All the time.
As well as the practical problems - and opportunities missed - failure to recognise somebody invariably causes offence. A few examples:
• The time I had lunch with somebody, then introduced myself to him again the next day.
• The time I sat next to an ex-girlfriend at a friend’s wedding and failed to recognise her.
• The time I bumped into somebody as I got onto the bus and kept walking after he said hello. We’d just been on a riotous stag weekend together a week before.
• The bloke I sat directly opposite at poker all night, then failed to recognise in the pub the following week.
• Even this week, I bumped into my personal trainer in a cafe. When he came over, for a moment, I mistook him for a waiter.
And those are just the ones that I heard about later, or awkwardly worked out at the time. It can be like being in a game show featuring a procession of strangers looming out of the darkness whose identities I have to guess without giving away that I don’t know who they are.
No matter what weak explanation I give about being bad with faces, failure to recognise somebody causes offence. Not being recognised is a blow to the ego - invariably, people take it personally.
Generally, the point at which a face finally begins to sink in is when they’re angrily confronting me about my rudeness.
I’m terrible at parties. The chances are that unless I know somebody quite well, they’re a stranger to me. Which can make for a certain social awkwardness.
So over the years, I’ve learned to bluff. One of the best things about being in Australia is being able to address everyone as “Maaaate”. The follow up of “how are things?” gets you a long way too.
When I’m introduced to people - no matter how unlikely it is that we will have met, I’ve learned to always, always use the words “Good to see you”. On the few occasions I’ve failed to put it that way and said “Nice to meet you”, inevitably, we’ve met before.
It’s only dawned on me in recent years, that this isn’t how everybody behaves.
If you haven’t got a particular knack, it’s hard to picture how it works for anybody else. If you went walking in a forest, would you immediately recognise a specific tree if you bumped into it in a completely different forest a few weeks later?
Yet somehow humans, or most of them, have evolved a skill that means they can pull off the trick with human faces. I gather that about one person in 40 struggles.
When I mention that I don’t have that knack, people always have the same reaction. They tell me that they’ve got a great memory for faces, but sometimes struggle with names. Every single time.
Over the years, partners, friends and colleagues have learned to introduce themselves if somebody comes over to say hello to us. It’s become an amiable conspiracy.
I’m not, by the way, completely unable to recognise people. After three or four meetings it usually sinks in. If some people score a 10 for facial blindness, then I’m only a seven.
There are also tricks - fixing specific characteristics like hair colour, eyebrow shape or even style of dress into my mind can help me get there.
I’m not even sure whether I’ve always been like this.
I recently developed a new theory after seeing an item on prosopagnosia and its occasional links to stroke and other forms of brain damage. My first recollection of it being an issue goes back about 20 years to roughly the same time when I noticed the vision had disappeared in the focal point of my left eye, leaving a permanent blur not unlike when you’ve been staring at a car headlight for too long. You do not want me on your team for the Magic Eye round in the pub quiz.
At the time, doctors were unable to explain this problem as there is nothing physically wrong with the eye; they made vague comments about blood pressure and perhaps a minor stroke before eventually concluding that perhaps I’d had the vision defect since birth but never noticed - as records of childhood eye tests were lost, we never knew for sure.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has written about the subject, talked about having the condition himself in an interview with The Economist, saying:
I’m a little bit on the reticent side - that’s a primary characteristic of face blindness. People should perhaps “out” themselves. In the book I tell a story where a man goes to a physician and says he can’t recognise people, and so his life has become ‘a round of apology and offence’. The matter must be aired. If people know you’re face blind you don’t have to apologise.
So I think it is indeed time to out myself.
I’m pleased to meet you. Again.
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