Friends, how often has this happened to you?
You meet a dude in the lobby of your building. He looks sort of vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough to be someone you actually know. You figure he’s a regular visitor to the building or something, so you might have seen him around.
But then, he says, “Lesley?” And you nod, suspiciously. And he says, “Hey, I’m Joe.*” And extends his hand.
A little confused as to how this guy knows your name, you shake his hand and politely say, “Hi Joe, it’s nice to meet you.”
Then you think, um, I probably should have said nice to SEE you, because this guy seems to know who you are so you might have maybe met him before OH NO IT’S HAPPENED AGAIN.
“Oh, we’ve met,” Joe says. He seems annoyed. He is the building manager and has been for several years. You’ve communicated via email and phone loads of times and met him in person more than once. You’re just a total screwup who panics when people try to greet you and you weren’t expecting to run into them.
You’re visiting the offices of your publisher a couple weeks after your book is out. You are being introduced to several people you’ve only spoken to via email, and of course you’re forgetting half their names immediately because you need to do that thing where you use a person’s name with them three times to remember that’s their name, and you’re meeting SO many people in rapid succession that this is impossible.
Still, you feel like you’ve got your “Great to finally meet you!” schtick down so it sounds natural and easygoing so it’s probably OK. You can always individually ask people their names later and try to make it silly and self-deprecating that you forgot.
Eventually you are brought into an office and you launch into “GREAT TO FINALLY MEET YOU,” while the woman you are meeting is saying, “So nice to see you again, how have you been?” Because she is the executive director and you met her last year and actually had a conversation together during the cocktail hour prior to the event where she was presenting you and a bunch of other people with an award for being neato feminists. Really kind of an important thing for you to remember.
You cover for it by laughing really loudly and pretending she didn’t hear you because you were both talking at the same time and maybe you should consider moving to a cave or a mountaintop or a different planet and never speaking to any other human ever again.
The first example above actually happened to me yesterday. Given the frequency with which I introduce myself to people I have already met -- often people I have met more than once -- you would think that it would get less embarrassing with every instance, but somehow I manage to find it freshly mortifying each time.
And I do it a lot. I do it in professional instances (I have attempted to introduce myself to people at xoJane’s parent company that I have met more than once, more than once), I do it in social situations (sorry, person I have met very briefly at least three times at local events, I swear it’s not personal, I am just terrible), I have even done it with my husband’s extended family (which, in my defense, is huge and sprawling and overwhelming to a person who grew up with four or five blood relatives I saw on a regular basis).
As much as I hate that I do this and would like to stop, it seems unavoidable; it is worst when I meet people in noisy and busy social events, but I’ve done it even when things were quiet and there was no one there except me and the person I was forgetting I’d met.
Face blindness -- otherwise known as prosopagnosia -- is a real neurological condition in which individuals have difficulty perceiving and recognizing faces, even faces of family members, or their own reflection in a mirror, in some cases. (Weirdly, last year Brad Pitt told Esquire magazine that he thinks he has prosopagnosia, which led to a little flurry of popular articles on the subject.) Obviously this issue can have some significant social effects on those who deal with it, and many people compensate by remembering other attributes of people, like how they walk, their hair, or the sound of their voice.
This is not my problem, however. Unlike most people with prosopagnosia, I am quite capable of recognizing someone’s face as familiar, I simply can’t always draw the necessary line between their face and how I know them.
I have no problem recognizing and placing people I know well -- I have spotted friends whom I haven’t seen in years in cities where neither of us live and known who they were immediately. This is really only something that happens to me with people that I am only slightly acquainted with.
Near as I can figure, it seems to be a matter of context: just running into someone I know in a place where I don’t expect to see them -- like a neighbor I talk to all the time, but at the Home Depot instead of in the workout room in my building -- sends my brain into flailing spasms of trying to place them. It’s almost become a self-fulfilling cycle, as now when I run into someone I recognize but I can’t immediately recall who they are, my brain goes directly into panic mode, and the resulting internal cacophony makes remembering them more difficult still. Then I find myself sort of doing that sneaky awkward detective thing in asking them open-ended questions and looking for clues, which I’m sure makes me seem like a totally non-creepy and healthy human being.
Worse yet, sometimes I can remember the person’s name as well as their face, but I can draw no connections to how I know them. This happens more often in professional contexts, and there have been a few cases in which I have surreptitiously googled people while I was talking to them to figure out how we know each other.
Is this normal? I am aware that I may sound like a total crackpot here. BUT I AM JUST TRYING TO BE SOCIAL LIKE A REGULAR PERSON.
I also feel a lot of guilt when this happens. Growing up, my father was a stickler for first impressions, and he instructed me emphatically and often on the importance of a firm handshake and good eye contact, and I actually agree that these things are generally pretty common to those people who live as semi-functional and successful social beings. So when I am trying to be all “Hello, it’s nice to meet you!” *smile* *eyeballs* *impress* and then I screw it up, I feel ashamed in a way that I never feel about anything else.
Still, while I fully realize it may come across as rude to whomever I’ve forgotten for the third time, I promise you that I am not consciously being rude. I am not blowing you off or being a jerk. It has nothing to do with how memorable you are. You’re very memorable and awesome and special. I am a weirdo with a panic brain. Be patient with me, as however uncomfortable you are made to feel by my forgetfulness, I am probably feeling way more horrified by it than you are.
Anyone else? Is there a cure? Or should I just restrict all my social interactions to the internet for the rest of my life? It’s definitely easier to secretly google people from here.
* Not his real name, obviously. I don't remember it anyway.