A woman is waving enthusiastically at me from the other side of the hall. She approaches me smiling. We exchange greeting pleasantries. I wonder if she has misidentified me or whether she is just a particularly friendly lady. Either way, I am open to a chat.
As the conversation unfolds she asks about each of my children by name, and then enquires about our recent holiday abroad. The fixed smile on my face masks my complete lack of recognition of who this person is, despite the fact that this is clearly someone I should know in some detail.
We reach the point in the conversation where we can’t go any further without me openly admitting, with a great deal of embarrassment, that I cannot recall where I know this lovely lady from. She shuffles awkwardly with what I can only image might be a combination of embarrassment, disappointment and insecurity that she might not be a memorable person. She advises me we are close neighbours. I cringe inwardly for the rest of the day from the awkward embarrassment this created for both of us.
This is the kind of things that happens to me regularly though thankfully not frequently. I can normally mitigate any awkwardness by playing along, doing some delicate probing as to our connection. Sometimes this works without embarrassment for either party. Sometimes it doesn’t. This is just the way things are for me.
It is not until I have been thrown into a semi-permanent and persistent new environment that this has really come into focus for me. I have recently become resident at the local hospital with my poorly boy for 13 days so far. There has been a whole host of new nurses, doctors and other medical staff with whom I have needed to build relationships – all wearing similar uniforms.
What I have noticed in this situation is just how much I rely on indicators other than faces to identify who people are. Clothes, body shape, hair style and voice are all key identifiers for me as well as a process of elimination if the person is a member of a group.
Another thing I have become aware of is the effect that this condition has on me. I put off connecting with people for fear that the person is not who I think they might be. I carry an almost constant worry with me that I come across as rude for not proactively connecting with people because of this. I experience feelings of being not good enough and lacking in social skills, and I harbour a lot of self-doubt in my ability to build new relationships with people particularly in a group setting.
I think this has set the scene for me taking a back seat with building relationships generally in life, waiting for people to come to me rather than putting myself forwards to connect with them. I often push people away as a defence mechanism for doubting my relationship building skills. It has left me more lonely, isolated and self-doubting than I care to be.
Additionally, although I think I am quite sensitive in picking up on vibes, I struggle at times to read facial expressions which can leave me doubting my reactions during a social exchange. Less importantly – depending on your priorities – I struggle to follow a plot in TV shows and movies because when a character changes their clothes or setting between scenes I often can’t then recognise them. I am the annoying one who interrupts the movie with “so who is this guy then? Do we know him?” “Yep – he’s still the main character!” Doh! Honestly, it puts me off watching… and no doubt puts other people off me watching with them!
After a little recent googling I discover this is most definitely a thing. Prosopagnosia. Not so uncommon I learn. An easier term of reference for this is face-blindness. I’m not sure I like that better but at least it’s pretty self-explanatory and easy to remember!
One thing I have learnt through our time in hospital is just how important effective communication is. I am the kind of person that tends to explode if I let things boil under the surface for too long, so communicating in a timely manor is really key for me. To communicate effectively with new people includes being open with them about all the relevant information that will affect our interactions. And face-blindness is definitely relevant!
After 13 days in hospital I am now in a place where I am able to recognise a lot of the staff consistently and confidently and have starting building rapport effectively. However we are currently transferring to a new hospital where we will start from square one again. Having learnt from my recent experience I feel the best way to build effective relationships is to be upfront and open in sharing this information about me with nurses and key staff. I hope this approach will pave a way for easier settling in to this new environment, less fear of judgement about coming across as rude and more understanding on both sides of our communications.
In the scenario I wrote about at the beginning I hope that being open about my condition will reassure the other person that it is not that they are not memorable and hopefully avoid embarrassment on both our parts. And maybe sharing my experience of this will actually help me build great relationship by leading with effective communication. I’m glad I shared it with you.
Living and ever learning x