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I have prosopagnosia, which is the inability to remember human faces. I can remember people by other traits, such as "blue eyes, tall, bald, has a beard and wears glasses" or "high-pitched voice, British accent, long red hair and a little heavy on the makeup", but I have a terrible time remembering the actual facial traits that make everyone truly unique.

As the consequence of that, I struggle to greet my colleagues whom I met before, which seems to be a culturally correct thing to do, and even if I have a strong suspicion who that person that I'm seeing is, I'm seldom fully certain. More than that, my fear of meeting someone whom I'm supposed to know forces me to avoid eye contact with others to avoid being even more offensive by clearly looking at someone I'm supposed to know and saying nothing, or saying "hi" to a complete stranger. This behaviour is further aggravated by my social anxiety.

These qualities, I feel, make me appear to other colleagues as an introverted and snobbish misanthropic jerk who cares only about themselves.

Any thoughts if there's a way to explain myself to other people?

What do you think would make you understand people like me and not assume I hold any contempt towards you just because I do not say "hi" or look at you and smile whenever we meet?

I was thinking that perhaps I could write a similar PSA-style message in the "casual" chat room where some employees hang out and explain my struggles, but I don't want to be in the focus of everyone's attention, especially since no one has ever asked me why I seemingly ignore everyone.

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    Would you recognize their voice? Say something to encourage them to greet you back; maybe that will help. – Brandin Feb 25 '17 at 17:02
  • @JoeStrazzere "Hi! Sorry I don't know if we've met before, but if we did, sorry for not saying "hi". You see, I have this condition..." (1 day later) "Hi! Sorry I don't know if we've met, but if we did, sorry for not saying "hi". You see, I have this condition..." (1 day later) "Hi! Sorry I don't know if we've met, but if we did, sorry for not saying "hi". You see, I have this condition..." – fullerene Feb 25 '17 at 17:34
  • @fullerene How many people do you normally meet each day? How many of them are new people who you did not meet before? – Masked Man Feb 25 '17 at 19:10
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    Rather than say "I have prosopagnosia" you could simplify, e.g. "I'm sorry, but I'm terrible at remembering names." Usually this will prompt them to remind you. – Brandin Feb 25 '17 at 21:35
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    @fullerene A reference linked by the Wikipedia article mentions some people with this condition rely on a "buddy system". That is, you might confide in one colleague, who will then help you out to identify people when you can't recognize to avoid embarassing situations. – Brandin Feb 26 '17 at 1:49
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I think you have two different situations to address that will help make your work environment more comfortable for you.

First - the core group of people that you work with should be informed of the condition and what it impacts regarding how you interact. You may want to share this with your manager or a natural leader on your team and ask them how it should be best shared with the rest of the team.

By doing this, your team will now also be able to stand up for you if people start talking behind your back - and they will very naturally socialize your condition without you having to announce it to the whole company.

Second - for people not in the core group, just smile, be polite and use non-specific language. For example, say "Hey, how are you doing? How are things on the home front?" - instead of - "Hey Bob how are you doing? How are your wife and kids?" In addition, let them lead the conversation - as they talk and bring up topics, it should help trigger your memory regarding who they are.

  • I was thinking of that, but sadly the manager seems to be someone not very sensitive or well versed in the psychological aspect. My condition doesn't technically prevent me from doing my duties, and I feel that is the only thing of their concern. Sadly I can't ask anyone "how are you doing" since it would be insincere asking that question without knowing who that person is, and I'm terrible at faking. The modern society seems to be filled with fake caring and forged friendliness to everyone, and it's a shame I'm a bad actor. It's good thinking though that I should try to learn it. Thanks. – fullerene Feb 25 '17 at 21:55
  • If I do start a conversation and I see the other person is actually willing to chat, I can actually maintain it quite well, but usually I cannot get through that initial barrier of "staged" small talk and "staged" body language. I guess those issues, along with lack of self confidence, are the aggravating factors I should be working on. – fullerene Feb 25 '17 at 22:01
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    Manager - then don't go to the manager - go to the natural leader on the team or someone you feel you can trust - they can help you with socializing the situation with your team. – user45269 Feb 25 '17 at 22:22
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    The "staged" stuff is really the "door" to the conversation - you have to go through it to get things going - so I don't view it as "fake" or "staged" - it is basically a commonly accepted greeting ritual. Also: If "how are you doing" seems inappropriate, switch to something more fact oriented - like "What's new in your world" or "How about this weather?" or a question about a timely event. I am terrible with names and personal information - so these neutral techniques help me get the other person to talk. Most people like to talk about themselves - so getting them started works for me. – user45269 Feb 25 '17 at 22:27
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    @Llewellyn - Ahh - Good catch - I did not intend to imply that the OP should start a conversation with everyone they meet. The techniques were for when they HAD to start a conversation. Under normal circumstances, a simple smile would do just fine. – user45269 Feb 26 '17 at 0:38
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I have the problems you describe, but to a lesser degree. I will be able to recognise someone after I have encountered them regularly, in situations where I know their name, over a few weeks. I haven't been diagnosed, but my guess is that I either have mild prosopagnosia or am at the low-functioning edge of "normal". Perhaps my experience will help.

I smile at everyone. Partly that's because of my difficulty with faces; I don't want to offend anyone. But partly it's because, as corny as it sounds, smiling makes the world a better place. Whenever someone smiles at me, it makes me feel a little better about my day, and I assume others have the same reaction. Also, I am an introvert; smiling lets others know that I'm not standoffish even though I may not say much.

I am still "caught out" occasionally when people realise that I don't recognise them. While that's a little embarassing for me, the other person never seems to be offended.

You may not feel comfortable smiling at everyone, and I don't think you need to be someone you're not. But many people with prosopagnosia chose to smile at everyone; it's a common coping technique. You might want to give it a try.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, that was a little helpful. :) Do you actively seek eye contact with people you smile to, by the way? Like, do you "force" your eyes, into the faces of everyone that walk by? – fullerene Feb 25 '17 at 21:16
  • No, I don't force eye contact. If they are looking in my direction, I look at their eyes and smile. If they aren't looking in my direction, I don't bother with either. – mhwombat Feb 25 '17 at 21:34
  • How can you tell they are looking in your direction if you're not looking at their eyes? It takes quite a few moments and observation of their face to understand the direction of a person's pupils (or sometimes even head) to tell whether they're looking at me or not. Do you not experience the same? – fullerene Feb 25 '17 at 21:41
  • Instead of saying "if they're looking in my direction", I should have said "if they're facing in my direction". In other words, if I see a complete face, then I smile. If I see only part of the face (e.g., they are looking down at something, or off to the side), then I don't smile. I don't have difficulty identifying the face as a face; I just can't tell who it is unless I know the person well enough. If you have difficulty telling if someone is facing you, you could just smile at everyone; no harm done. – mhwombat Feb 26 '17 at 1:57
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Disclaimer: I don't have prosopagnosia myself, but I do have difficulty remembering both names and faces (to a smaller degree).

I feel that the best way to deal with this kind of problem is upfront, i.e. the first time you're introduced to a new person. "I have trouble recognizing faces, so please don't take it personally if I don't recognize you the next time we meet. If you want to talk to me, just say hi."

Personally, I wouldn't use the more technical term unless someone asks about it. While people might have heard the term "face blindness", hardly anyone will recognize "prosopagnosia".

Since you already have been working with your colleagues for a while, you might want to use a casual chatting situation (going to lunch together, hanging out by the coffee machine) to explain your problem. "By the way, I don't know if you noticed, but I'm unable to recognize faces. When I don't greet (any of) you I don't mean to be rude. I simply don't recognize you."

Unfortunately, by now you probably have earned a reputation of being rude and standoffish, but if you explain your handicap often enough, chances are people will be understanding.

Also, depending on how many people are in your office, you could just say hi (or nod or whatever) to everyone you meet as a friendly non-committal greeting, at least when you first arrive in the morning. After that, I don't think I ever greet my colleagues when I pass them in the corridor.

  • I only used "prosopagnosia" since it was a shorter word for the headline. I'd just say I have a very faulty memory. I have an absolutely terrible time remembering some other things like names and numbers, too. I don't go to launch with anyone, since no one would call me, and if I chanced upon someone I'm meant to know in the cafeteria, I wouldn't recognise them, so that road seems closed to me. – fullerene Feb 25 '17 at 21:45
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My manager knows that I have this. (In the USA, it is protected under the ADA).

I have told other ppl "I am somewhat face-blind." If asked further, I say "I recognize ppl by their voices, haircuts, and context. So if I see you in a supermarket and don't greet you, you may have to tell me who you are and where I met you."

Treating questions casually helps. Making a big deal out of it doesn't.

Oliver Sacks was also face-blind, so we are in good company.

P.S. Friendliness and a willingness to be a valuable employee go far.

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What do you think would make you understand people like me and not assume I hold any contempt towards you just because I do not say "hi" or look at you and smile whenever we meet?

I wouldn't care much whether or not you say "hi" or smile at me. Life is too short to worry about trivial things. I would even go one step further and greet you with "Hi, I am Masked Man." each time.

If I did care about being greeted with a "hi" each time I met someone, I am sure if the person has a condition that prevents him from doing so, then I would understand and not think much of it.

Don't overthink this. Most people are not jerks. Did I just say, life is too short to worry about trivial things? I think so.

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