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February 11, 2013

Recognizing unfamiliar faces

Grappling with personal weirdness reminds us that there really is no such thing as normal.

Do I know you?

Maybe. I’m not sure. Please don’t take it personally. You see, I am terrible with names and faces, abysmal even. Unless you are quite distinctive-looking, or we run into each other with some frequency, I might have a hard time picking you out of a crowd. Or a police lineup, for that matter. And even if I remember seeing you before, the odds are decent I don’t know what to call you. Do I address you in small talk only as “you,” or pointedly avoid addressing you directly at all? Either way, it’s a dead giveaway that I am frantically, desperately trying to recall your name every time we meet.

How bad am I at this? Pretty bad. I have unblinkingly breezed past people whom I have had long conversations with, sat next to in class, or traveled with for extensive periods of time, only to be deeply embarrassed later on when told what I had done. I have failed to memorize the names of coworkers and peers days—even months—past the time in which asking them for a reminder would be socially acceptable. On one or two occasions, I’ve had to double-check the name at the top of a syllabus before walking into office hours.

Yes, O-Week was sort of stressful. I had too much pride to make flashcards of the people in my house but believe me: The thought crossed my mind.

My recognition low point may have come during spring quarter of my first year, when I walked into the house lounge on a Saturday evening to find a friend of mine hanging out with an unfamiliar-looking woman. I waved hello, then stuck out my hand and introduced myself. Dead silence and a pair of “Are you serious?” faces followed.

It took two or three of the longer seconds I’ve ever lived before the realization crested over me in a wave of horror. I did know her. In, uh, the biblical sense. We had met at a party several weeks earlier.

Like I said: pretty bad. I apologized profusely and earnestly, and turned a bright scarlet for good measure. To my eternal disbelief, she accepted my apology. Sometimes you are fortunate, and people are understanding in even your worst moments.

But the prospect that I may come across as cold, antisocial, or indifferent on account of a neurological quirk beyond my control occasionally worries me. There are times when I wish I had something to pin it on, some way to explain myself. But I don’t. I’ve had head MRIs once or twice for research studies, but so far this University’s fine medical professionals have found no tumor pressing down on a critical cortex in my brain. When a friend jokingly sent me a 60 Minutes segment on “face blindness”—a real medical condition, which may affect over two percent of the population to some degree—I was generally able to pass the facial recognition tests shown on screen with ease. Pathological sufferers of prosopagnosia, as it is properly called, failed miserably.

Of course, I wouldn’t ever wish to have an actual, diagnosable neurological disorder just so I could give some justification for behavior that might otherwise come off as rude or weird. I don’t want to go through life making excuses for myself; I don’t believe most of us do. In fact, when I think of people I know with challenges far greater than an occasional inability to recall that kid from Sosc class, I am always struck by how unwilling they are to use those additional obstacles as a crutch.

And a funny thing has happened. As I pass through college, and this trait that can make me seem off at times actually seems like more of a liability—as the working world looms and “who you know” becomes more important—I am nonetheless starting to be bothered by it a little less. One thing that becomes increasingly apparent in early adulthood is what a strange, patchwork thing our idea of “normal” is.

Sexuality and electromagnetism are not the only things that exist along spectrums; almost everything else does too. Even if we sit perfectly in the middle of one bell curve, odds are there are many others in which we fall far to one side—and we are joined on those margins by millions of other weirdoes. Some of the people reading this column are, no doubt, walking around campus forgetting names and faces as easily as I do. So why get worked up about it?

Easier said than done. I did say I was only a little less bothered these days. I can’t always manage to shake a guiding idea of what is “normal,” or stop feeling bad when I fall short of it. And there are, I admit, other people and things I have a hard time not seeing as strange myself. If the recognition that “normal” is not as clear-cut as we once thought is one realization that often comes as we mature, the fact that there are not always neat and easy solutions is another.

The best I can do is try: try, maybe, to work harder at pinning down names and faces. But also to keep in mind how people are more accepting than I expect them to be, more willing to look past seeming flaws, and, if they are good friends, to whisper half-forgotten names in my ear at parties with little more than a knowing smirk. They remind me that all of us have the capacity to understand each other, and ourselves, as something more than a collection of points on spectrums, defined by their varying distances from some imagined median of smart or attractive, friendly or funny. Perhaps this is what we should try a little harder to see when we look at people—even if we can’t recall who they are. It may well be a type of recognition worth working on.

David Kaner is a third-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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