Last week I went to a work party with my husband. Around forty people, some familiar and some strangers, crowded into a small room and were mingling about. With conversations surrounding us, all the voices blended into one. It was difficult to pick a familiar voice from within the group. In other words, a nice night out was slipping into a frustrating experience of “have I met you before”.
With prosopagnosia, how do you find out who each person is? How do you comfortably move around forty people all saying hello to one another and nonchalantly ask each of them, “Hey, do we know each other?” You don’t. That is the problem with social gatherings. Unless you want to stand before everyone and make an announcement regarding the condition also known as face blindness, you have to merely fake it until you make it. Sometimes there will be a distinct characteristic of an individual that will allow you to recognize them easily. Sometimes a person will give you enough information about their life that you will be able to identify how you know each other. Some individuals with prosopagnosia find identifying these clues too challenging and frustrating. They choose to stay at home and remain in their peaceful comfort zone. This is not my nature. I long for social companionship. I cannot let the world of strangers deter me from taking in all the joys I previously knew before acquiring prosopagnosia.
As we arrived at the party, a gentleman said hello to me. It was then I began to analyze who he was: 1.) He knew my name. 2.) There was no confusion or reluctance filling his eyes as he greeted me. 3.) He knew my mode of transportation. This told me he was very familiar with who I was. He knew me, so I must know him. His question of how I was, was genuine. His mannerism showed kindness and courtesy. The most telling clue was his speech. It held an accent resembling someone raised in the southern United States. Ah, yes, I was now sure I knew this man. Yet, before I started inquiring about his wife and children by name, I leaned into my husband’s shoulder and quietly whispered the name asking if I was correct. Yes, I was. With this confirmation, we went on to have a very nice conversation.
Name tags would be so helpful in situations like this. Then again, name tags would be helpful any time I stepped out my door. What is it like to have prosopagnosia? It is intimidating. It can be disappointing. It is a mixture of frustration and sadness at times. Yet, many times I find the humor lying behind my initial reaction. Expecting the entire world to wear name tags for us is a bit too much. Rather, I think I should fill my closets with shirts stating, “Please let me explain prosopagnosia to you….Unless I just did”. I do not resent having face blindness. It is currently estimated 2% of the population has it. I am not alone.
I am not alone in the world with this condition, but sometimes it is astounding how alone I can be in a crowded room. If I know you, please say hello. If I ignore you, please do not assume I was being rude. Saying, “Hi Tara. How are you? I’m Susan” will help me a lot. Do not feel awkward about this frequent introduction. After all, I remember your kindness. I remember our previous conversations. I remember your joy and my response of excitement. It is just that I do not remember the appearance of your face. I continue to wish we could all wear name tags whenever we leave the house. I know, maybe too much to ask for, but it would be nice to never again have to guess who the kind stranger is at a gathering. If it is you, I really hope you come over and say hello again. Whether it is the first time or the twentieth that we have met, I will be grateful to learn your name again.