When I describe that I am unable to recognize faces, people often ask me how I manage to interact with others socially at all. The concept that anything other than the face could be used to differentiate and recognize people seems almost foreign to those for whom the face is their primary recognition clue. (That would be the roughly 98% of you who have relatively normal to superior facial recognition skills who do not have prosopagnosia.) Although I am not blind, I am functionally blind when it comes to faces. Nonetheless, I have developed a fairly extensive repertoire of coping strategies, but none of them work as well as the face does for those who can recognize faces. In fact, sometimes my coping strategies are so good that some people are unable to tell that I actually failed to recognize them. I've heard stories relayed through the grape vine about how I "recognized" some people without ever knowing that I did so. Apparently, I could be nominated for an Academy Award, an Emmy, or perhaps a Toni in the show called "Real Life Stories of a Prosopagnosic Faking Social Conversations". This assumes the person has approached me first. If, on the contrary, I am required to approach the other person first, the nomination might be for the category of "Most Awkward Social Acting". Luckily for me, I don't always have to resort to acting in order to be socially successful in any specific situation.
I have a friend whose name is Scott. In winters past, he has generally been a pretty easy person for me to identify. He has had either a day-glow orange winter coat, or a lemon yellow winter coat. Because his coats were so unique, I had been recognizing Scott wearing his coats pretty easily.
I was walking around with him one day, and we had decided to hop on a bus together. Normally, when I am traveling with a person, as a survival skill I learned a long time ago, I do not let my eyes off of that person in a crowd. However, in the bustle that took place getting on the bus, I lost sight of Scott.
After getting on the bus, I spotted Scott's coat, sat down next to a very confused lady and began talking to her as if she was Scott. (I should add here that some people with prosopagnosia, myself included, have moderate to substantial difficulties with differentiating the sex of individuals by sight. I frequently say "sir" to women, and "ma'am" to men. Occasionally, I receive an earful for this social faux-pas. I am not trying to be malicious, but many times, I simply can not tell if I am looking at a man or a woman.) Thirty seconds later, realizing what had happened, Scott called out to me saying, "Glenn, I'm over here!"
Of course, I was very embarrassed, but this is nothing new for me. Embarrassment seems to come with the territory of having prosopagnosia. My coping strategies are adequate most of the time, but they are by no means perfect. When they fail, they fail spectacularly and I am no less embarrassed because of it.
Blaming myself for things I can not control is, of course, quite senseless, but there is such a huge social expectation that recognition will occur, and I will never be able to meet that expectation. Even though Scott is a good friend who understands as well as I can hope any person to understand, this is a serious challenge for me. He is usually pretty good-natured about it. However, even Scott still expects me to locate him among a crowd of people. I have had some pretty frustrating conversations with him over this. We make use of cell phones to locate each other when we arrive at a designated location. Still, I expect him to recognize me before I will be able to recognize him. On more than one occasion, I have explained to Scott, "Yes, I can see, Scott, but for this kind of purpose, you really have to pretend I am completely blind and not expect me to locate you among a crowd of people. You have no idea how frustrating that is to me. When I say, ‘meet me at a certain place,' that is because you can recognize me even though I can not easily recognize you."
Such conversations also tend to put me in an irritable mood. I really don't enjoy being "tested" like that. The only exception to that is if I happen to be meeting up with a prosopagnosic friend of mine. In that situation, it is at least an equally vexing challenge for both of us, requiring each of us to get clever with our own coping strategies to figure out the identity of the other person.
Recognition can not occur reliably, however, with only a single physical trait being used, as witnessed by my failure described above while trying to recognize Scott. Instead, for me as a person with prosopagnosia, recognition must utilize a large collection of traits, both physical and non-physical. Even then, the reliability of recognition will be poor for me. As a result, I made a conscious decision a long time ago that I was going to introduce the topic of prosopagnosia at about the same time as I introduced myself to people, assuming it was a socially appropriate occasion for such a conversation. I try to keep the conversation relatively short, unless the other person seems very interested in the topic. My goal is to include just enough information to be able to ask for help with creating meaningful social interactions for me. Sometimes, this is more successful than others. After all, I can not control how any individual person responds to the conversations I may initiate, nor can I control what they choose to do with any information I may give them as a guide for how to effectively interact with me. Even telling people about my prosopagnosia puts me at substantial risk of potentially being hurt since anybody who knows I can not recognize faces will easily realize that I also can not recognize criminals. (As I discussed previously, I can take solace in the fact that facial recognition of criminals is not as clear cut as it would seem.) Even so, all I can do is put the information out there and hope that some of it will be remembered.
What I can say is that something is working well for me. As a result of much of the advocacy work I, and others, have done over the past 17 years, prosopagnosia has received a lot of attention in the popular media recently, and because of that, when I introduce the topic of prosopagnosia in conversation, the responses I get now are a lot different. Previously, I would often hear, "I've never heard of that before. Are you serious?" Now, more often I am hearing, "You know, I think I read or heard something about that before." The sums I would have paid to have that level of acceptance and understanding years ago, especially as a child....
When I was a child, it was nearly impossible to explain prosopagnosia because I lacked a proper understanding of the experiences of people who could recognize faces, and I also didn't really have a clear understanding of how my experiences are different. As an adolescent, I realized the social necessity of explaining about prosopagnosia in the course of my social interactions, but still lacked the skills and confidence to be able to do so effectively. Finally, as an adult, I possess both the skills and the confidence. As for the prosopagnosic children growing up now, they are also better off because of the work many of us have done in putting prosopagnosia out there. I hope they will acquire such skills and personal confidence sooner than I did.
So for all of you people out there with orange coats, if I start talking to you strangely, and I happen to call you Scott, don't take it personally. Scott is a real nice guy, I assure you. I am certain you are also nice people. And if I happen to call you the wrong name, please be gentle with me, and just remind me of your name. Mistakes happen. They are a part of life, but fortunately, only a small part. The rest of life is about enjoying each other's company. I hope you enjoy my company as much as I enjoy yours, orange coat or not.
©2011, Glenn Alperin
Teaser image courtesy of http://www.wintercoatsstore.com/images/Winter%20Clothes%20007.jpg
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