This time of year seems packed full of events which cause me all sorts of problems, and all of them have the same thing in common: they mean I struggle to recognise anyone. You see, unlike most people, I don’t recognise people by their faces. Instead, I use all sorts of other cues, like hairstyles, facial hair, how they stand or walk, the way they usually dress and the place I usually see them in. This means that when people start dressing up in costumes, or growing moustaches for charity, or putting up their hair and donning their Sunday best for the annual Christmas party, many of those cues I rely on to recognise them suddenly disappear, and I’m left standing amongst strangers, even though I may have known the people concerned for years.
When I bump into someone I usually see in jeans and t-shirts in a suit or cocktail dress, I can be talking to them for a good five or ten minutes before it finally dawns on me who they must be. Even then, I still don’t recognise them, and I’m not infrequently completely wrong, and that can be very awkward, especially when I end up saying the wrong thing to the wrong person because I’d mistaken them for someone else (I once asked after a colleague’s husband only to given a cold stare as I was told in no uncertain words, ‘He’s still shacked up with his graduate student!’ – I’d thought she was someone else completely, and if I’d recognised her I wouldn’t have raised what was such a touchy, and scandalous, issue).
Now at this point I should explain something. I’m not as crazy as this can make me sound. Rather, I have a condition called Prosopagnosia. This is something that, as far as I know, I was born with, and that I didn’t even know I had until I started writing my first novel. It’s strange to suddenly find out in your forties that your brain doesn’t actually work the same way as everyone else’s, and that something that you never knew was even possible, everyone else does in a split second without even thinking about it. You see, Prosopagnosia is also known as face blindness, and it means that in my brain, the part which others use to recognise the faces of people they’ve previously met in an instant, even if it’s years later, just doesn’t function the way it should. It’s not that I can’t see faces, or judge whether someone is good-looking or not (I get asked that one a lot), it’s just that the moment someone turns away, I’ll have little or no recollection of even the basics of what they look like. And it’s not just a matter of me not paying enough attention, I can stare at their face for minutes (now that can freak people out!), desperately trying to commit it to memory only for it to vanish the moment they’re gone.
This coming week, my abilities will be tested and found wanting yet again when I teach my annual class at my local university. I’ll have fourteen students in the small seminar room I use and I’ll have to do some pretty fancy manoeuvring to make sure that I don’t end up calling anyone by the wrong name. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try to minimise the chance of this, like getting them all to introduce themselves to each other at the start as I quickly scribble down who is sitting where. The only trouble is that students have a tendency to change places, and I can hardly force them not to (they are grad students after all, and they probably wouldn’t appreciate being treated like first graders). This means I’m having to constantly update my diagram as they trade seats after every break. This is fine if I notice, but if they do it when I’m out of the room, I’ll have no chance. It doesn’t help that over the course of the several days I’ll be teaching them, they’ll change their clothes, or suddenly decide to wear their hair differently, making a difficult problem so much worse.
Of course, to some extent, I can get away with it by simply not referring to any of them by name, but that won’t stop the next problem I’ll have. This is the annual departmental Christmas party which will be held in a few weeks time. Those same students who I’ll be teaching next week will be there, mixed in amongst the faculty, research fellows and PhD students, some of whom I’ll have taught in previous years, and I won’t have a hope of recognising any of them, even though one of them is my own brother. I know this sounds extreme, but, then again, I struggle to recognise my own face in a mirror or a photograph, and when I close my eyes, I cannot summon up any sort of an image of what my face looks like beyond a vague blur.
This is where my dislike of selfies comes in. Selfies, almost by their definition, exclude all the elements I use to recognise people as they are usually little more than a face with nothing else in shot. Worse, most are shot from a high angle looking down, an angle I will almost certainly never have seen someone at before, and that means I’ll have little chance of working out who it is I’m looking at. To me, selfies, are pretty much meaningless shots of complete strangers, no matter how well I know the person involved and even if I’m told who it is that took it.
Of course, there are plus sides. When I write, I tend to be really good at describing how people are standing, or moving around, they way they play with their hair when they’re nervous or the little mannerisms that make them them. This is because, to me, it is this, rather than their faces, that makes people individuals. I do need an editor to remind me to put in at least some facial descriptions every now and then, but the other details really help to make the characters come alive within the readers head.
This is not to say that I don’t sometimes wish that I was better at being able to recognise people from their faces alone, just like everyone else, because there are times when I do, but as I’ve never known what it’s like to be able to do this, I can’t really miss it. It must be worse for people who develop face blindness because of an illness or accident (which can happen), because they’ll know they can no longer do something that they used to be able to. For me, it’s just normal (well, normal for me at any rate).
So, if you happen to bump into me at some special occasion over the next few weeks, and I seem to ignore you, ask yourself is it because I’ve forgotten you? Or that I’m blanking you? Or that I’m simply being rude? Or it is, and this is much more likely, because you’re wearing a fancy dress costume? Or you’re all dressed up for a good night out? Or that you’ve suddenly decided to sprout a moustache for the month?
Of course, the chances are that if you smile at me and talk to me as if we’ve known each other for years, I’ll smile back and shake your hand, and say, ‘It’s nice to see you’. This I’ve learn is a perfectly neutral response that you can say to anyone even if you don’t know whether you know them or not. Say ‘It’s nice to meet you’ to someone you’ve already been introduced to or, worse, know quite well, and they’ll feel slighted that you’ve forgotten them. Greet a stranger that you’ve never met before like an old friend, and they’ll think you’re crazy. Or that you’re after something. But say ‘It’s nice to see you’ and the old friend will be quite happy thinking you mean it’s nice to see them again. The complete stranger will be happy to because they’ll think you’re just pleased to make a new friend. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least it means I can get through most social functions without accidentally insulting too many people.
It is, however, easier just to avoid such situations in the first place, and maybe that explains why I only teach one class a year (and a small one at that – I’d have no chance in a class of 30, or 60, or 100), and maybe that’s why I only go to social functions filled with lots of people if I really can’t avoid them. It certainly explains why I don’t grow a moustache for Movember and why, unlike what seems like everyone else on the planet, I’ve never taken a selfie in my entire life. After all, what would be the point of taking a selfie when there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t even be able to recognise myself in it?
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.