I’m entering my fourth month at my new job, and the jig is up—any day now, my coworkers are going to realize that I still don’t recognize them and never really did.
I have mild prosopagnosia, a cognitive disorder that impairs face perception, and I’ve had it my entire life. Prosopagnosia can result from neurological damage such as stroke or trauma, or appear congenitally. In severe cases, the afflicted may not be able to identify their spouses or even their own reflection in the mirror. Although the condition is difficult to diagnose, it has been estimated that as many as 1 in 50 people may fall somewhere on the spectrum; those on the mild end may live the majority of their lives without knowing.
In my case, I have to see a face about 30 times before I learn it. Until then, every encounter is like meeting someone for the first time. But since I work in an office of over 800 people, live in a city of 8 million, and embrace networking as an essential part of my career and personal development, I’m often in a tight spot. Here’s how I deal.
A tricky thing happens to the face blind in a social or networking environment. As you shake a person’s hand, look them in the eye, and repeat their name, your mind bounces all over the place:
Should I tell her now that I might not remember her face? Is that rude? I can’t find a discerning feature to memorize! Will I even see this person again? Is this interaction worth all this anxiety?
Indeed, social anxiety is just one of the psychological side effects that can stem from face blindness. To mitigate this, come prepared with a game plan and be ready to address it head-on.
I typically don’t touch on the topic until someone calls me out on it:
We’ve met before. We talked for half an hour at Anna’s birthday party literally one week ago.
Oops! In situations like these, I will provide a brief, sincere explanation:
You know, I can’t recognize faces very well. It’s a neurological condition called prosopagnosia and I have a very mild case. So nice to see you again!
Being able to succinctly explain how my brain works and not getting caught off guard helps me maintain control of the conversation and keep my anxiety at bay. And using the clinical term helps me avoid sounding flippant or lazy. Most people appreciate the honesty.
Details are my secret weapon when it comes to compensating for face blindness. Due to the plasticity of the human brain, people born lacking one sense, such as sight, may experience enhanced taste, smell, and hearing. I like to think that my inability to recognize faces results in a heightened awareness of detail. Networking is a constant exercise in being present; the minute I begin speaking with someone new, I am 100% focused and listening for meaningful details she might drop into the conversation that I can use to create my own mental image, sans face.
A face looks like nothing to me (well, it looks like any other face!) But if you mention the name of our mutual friend or remind me where we met, I’ll remember that your partner began a new job last spring; that you were planning to move out of your apartment on Houston Street; and that you write a travel blog as a side hustle. Being face blind forces me to build a fuller, more complex mental picture of a person that includes their voice and cadence, way of walking and moving, and their history.
This is not an accident or a natural gift. As someone who does not recognize faces, I feel constant pressure to prove that I am engaged and interested. Recalling details not only reminds a person that I am sincere despite my inability to recognize her, but may also strengthen the nascent relationship. Not too many people actually listen that closely and remember details.
I won’t sugarcoat it: Depending on the severity of face blindness, you will mess up. I can’t count how many times I have introduced myself and said, “Nice to meet you!” only to be reminded that we have already met. (I am trying to train myself to only say “Nice to see you” for this very reason.)
Even with my rehearsed explanation, the person on the other end isn’t always understanding or friendly. Some people take it personally when I don’t recognize them in passing or at a party, and as a sensitive person, I completely understand that.
As my network grows, the awkward encounters don’t stop; if you value meeting new people, they won’t ever stop. But they are far outnumbered by the rewarding personal and professional relationships I have formed once past that initial awkward moment. I say, don’t carry the negative experiences with you. It’s not worth it.
Special thanks to those who have shared their stories of dealing with prosopagnosia, which I have linked in this article.
Jessica Stewart lives in New York City. She is obsessed with her [female] team.
Originally published on Ellevate.
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