I have a small confession to make: I’m face-blind.
It’s basically what it sounds like: I have a lot of difficulty remembering and differentiating people’s faces. I’m sorry I don’t recognize you, but it’s nothing personal, I swear.
I’ve mentioned it to some of my close friends, but only if it comes up in context (usually out of concern that I’ve offended someone by not recognizing them).
Sure, you’re thinking, I’m bad at remembering faces too, lots of people are, no big deal! That’s reassuring, and for a long time I thought I was just “bad at faces” like everyone else, but after analyzing it over the years, I’ve concluded that I’m significantly worse than average at facial recognition.
My mom tells me that when I was a young child, I would reach for any Asian man with glasses and call him Dad.
Things are usually fine if the other person has unique physical characteristics, like their hair or body type, unusual scars, a particular tenor to their voice. It’s also easier for me to recognize people that I see frequently in person. Otherwise though, I have to make a concerted effort if I want to remember what a new acquaintance looks like, by studying their face, or more frequently, by memorizing their clothing or glasses so I can get through the evening.
A room full of beautiful people induces mild panic in me because everyone looks so generically similar to each other. It’s a sea of symmetric faces, with no distinguishing features that I can latch onto. Events like a dinner hosted by the Korean Tourism Board or someone else’s family reunion also make me nervous. How am I supposed to figure out who’s who when everyone looks the same?
Here’s some of the ways it affects me:
- Movies: I struggle with movies and TV shows with lots of characters because I can’t tell the actors apart. If the plot involves characters in disguise, spies, clothing changes, etc. I am particularly at a loss. This rules out the Ocean’s Eleven movies for me, and I had to watch Love Actually two or three times before I felt like I really understood what was happening.
- Meeting Acquaintances: If it’s been a long time since I last saw you and we’re not that close, I will probably struggle to recognize you, especially if we’re meeting in a busy place like a street corner or a train station. Rather than flag someone down by mistake, I sometimes just look away or study my phone, waiting for the other person to approach me first.
- Meeting New People: I might wait for you to introduce yourself first because I can’t remember if we’ve met before, and I’d rather not introduce myself and have you tell me that we’ve already met. Earlier that same night, in fact. This is most awkward in professional settings, like a job fair. Luckily, I’ve never had a job that required me to meet and remember lots of people at once, like teaching or public relations.
- Running into people randomly: You know how sometimes you’ll run into friends you haven’t seen in years at a cafe or in the park or back in your hometown? I don’t. Unless you proactively approach me, I will never realize we passed each other. On the plus side, it means I’m never awkwardly running into people I’d rather avoid.
- Running into people out of context: Placing people when I see them out of their normal setting is hard. I run into my landlord periodically around the neighborhood, and it’s always a surprise to see him waving me down on the street, in the park, at the Food Coop. This was a particularly prevalent problem for me in college, where I was constantly meeting new people and I couldn’t remember how I knew them. Once, I was sitting in a play, and an older man tapped me on the shoulder and began talking to me as if he knew me. I carried on the conversation as if I recognized him, but couldn’t determine where we had met. Days later, I realized it was someone who had been attending my chimes concerts.
Once, I met a friend of a friend who casually mentioned being face-blind. My eyes lit up; it was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about face blindness outside of the Internet. We swapped stories for a bit, joking that we were going to have a recurring meeting for face-blind people, where you’d have to reintroduce yourself every time.
For the most part, my face-blindness is just a minor inconvenience. I simply don’t watch Game of Thrones and I will never spot a celebrity in public.
On the flip side, I think I’m less judgmental about physical appearances, both for other people and myself. I probably won’t notice if you’ve gained (or lost) weight, I won’t make hiring decisions based on implicit beauty biases, and the idea of being instantly attracted to someone based on their looks is rather foreign to me.
Maybe we’d all be a bit less shallow and a bit more kind if we couldn’t see people on the outside.