Before I knew I had face blindness I just assumed I was very bad a remembering most people’s names. An exception to this was the children in classes that I taught. I could learn these within half an hour or so. The exception to that exception was Bil and Ben, who were the only two blond haired blue eyed kids in a class I taught for about three months. I could not tell them apart and called both of them Billben or randomly Bill or Ben. Incidentally they did not look anything like each other and I was forever bemused as a very inapproproate University lecturer had asked me on a teaching practice assessment visit if I was ‘managing to learn the Indian kids names as they are so difficult’ and I had no idea what she was talking about and slowly pronounced each child’s name so she could see how easy it was….

In Japan recently I aksed another European if they found it easy to distinguish between Japanese faces, which to me a quite different from one another (which does not mean I will recognise a Japanese person I meet again any more than anyone else). They said no, they all looked similar and Japanese friends had told them that to them caucasian faces were very similar. Fascinating.

And yet, now I know I have face blindness it is the one thing about me that I feel compelled to tell people because I have begun to notice how offened people are when I do not recognise them. This does pay off when people beleive me – and I appreciate it when a colleague tells me who they are or wears their name badge so I can see who they are. On the other hand people make the oddest assumptions about my other skills or lack of when they find out about my faceblindness (I work in education in various teaching/training/mentoring/consulting roles). Some people even assume I must be no good at teaching because I don’t recognise people’s faces. This is not related and I can identify people once I know them as long as they have some distinctive characteristics; height, build, hair style, clothing etc. I know someone who have very long hair and a bushy beard at times at no hair at all at other times (with or without the beard) but he always wears a certain type and style and colour of clothing so I always recognise him. On the other hand I walked straigh past my partner last week when we were meeting up after working in different parts of the country for a few weeks. Only when texted and then seeing them with no other people around and with luggage I know well did it click! I said; “opps did I just walk right past you?” My lovely partner who understands my face blindness well just smiled and said yes!

Having insight into having faceblindness is problematic as I now feel bad if I walk past people I ‘know’ or arrive somewhere to meet people and cannot find them because they have changed their hairstyle or clothing style. Before I just thought I couldn’t find them! In addition I struggle to understand why people are offended if I walk past them or clearly don’t recognise them. It is not as if I do it on purpose and I know my partner really well but in a crowd I may or may not be able to pick them out. And it is hard to explain to people that I have some strategies and some people are so distinctive in themselves that I can recongise them – Barrack Obama for example, but that I usually have no idea which actor is in a movie I am watching or I get characters mixed up if they look similar to me. 300 was almost impossible for me. 

On the other hand I am now aware of my strategies to manage and maximise my idenitification of other people and can share these with others (adults and kids) that have face blindness. 

If you know someone who seems to really struggle to recognise people or looks as if they have no idea who you are when you see them please try to develop an insight into why this might be and use the following strategies to help them (as if they are just bad with names they will still appreciate it):

  • say hi – you may not remember my name, I’m ….. and we met ….. (or we work together on x or whatever)
  • do not take it personally because it isn’t
  • do not assume this difficulty has any bearing on any other skills/difficulties
  • if you are meeting the person in a crowded place let them know in advance where you will be standing/sitting and text them at the time to tell them what you are wearing and if you have had to stand/sit somewhere else OR tell them you will find them if they stand/sit somewhere
  • introduce new people to them with more context than you might typically do, for example; Friend, this is Joe, he works in accounts on the third floor and you may see him around the department from time to time. Joe likes….. or Joe is from…… (the idea being to fix some key information about Joe into their mind which will help to link the name to the person)
  • understand that faces are the difficulty not the person – accents, hairstyle, height, weight etc are all still visible and recognisable.

I hope this is of some help, and if you think you may have problems recognising faces and want some more strategies to identify and recognise individuals try to make sure you:

  • learn a key piece of information about people when you meet them and then you will recall you have met them before and know they are the lego lady for example
  • file hairstyle, accent, build, height, clothing style, movement type/style under the key peice of information and link it to their name
  • repeat their name several time whilst mentally going over the identifying characteristics and checking them off visually

You can teach these strategies to kids along with the basics of:

  • smile and say hello, its ok to not use names
  • when saying goodbye/thank you, it is still ok to not use names but other people really like it if you smile at them when you are saying thankyou. 
  • when introducing yourself it is ok to say “hi my name is…, what is your name.” BUT people don’t like it if you say this to them more than 2 or 3 times ever. If you think you may know someone it is better to say “hi, how are you? I’m sorry I have forgotten your name.” The other person will usually tell you their name when you say this

So, next time someone is looking around blankly instead of greeting you, help them out and see how your insight can put them at ease and help to ease stress and even anxiety.