I've had difficulty recognizing faces of strangers for a long time. When I know someone, it's not generally a problem. I know them, I know their expressions, and I can sometimes even wind up dashing off a sketch of them that captures not only their features, but how they actually feel to be around.
But strangers? Say there's a new hire at work. I've seen their name on a list of employees, and they've told me their name, so I've had a chance to match name and voice and face and demographic impression all together in my head. Unless I already know them, I'm not going to remember their facial features unless there is something very distinctive about them that I could describe in words. What happens instead, generally, is that they are appended to a cluster of people sharing the same demographic information.
What does my head mean, demographic information? It seems that my memory for people stores along the same lines as a police officer asking for a description for a person-search might be looking for. Height. Build. Hair color. (Often, hair style.) Ethnicity. Sometimes, eye color. Clothing last seen wearing. Jewelry. Tattoos. Scars. Not their face.
I have difficulty recognizing people for this reason. Is that really them, or is it someone of the same demographic lump? How do I know if I've met them or not? Is there a "ghost feature" that's causing me to sort them with someone out of the proper demographic lump? (For example, pale slender young men of a certain height range and hair color range with light eyes and thin facial features, glasses a stronger association, cause my heart to skip a beat, even if I know it can't be. And redheads should not sort with blonds and fair brunets.)
There are two women at work who I have difficulty sorting out. They are both in their thirties, voluptuously built, black hair, dark eyes, olive skin, shorter than I am by a few inches. They have at least three hairstyles between them. I know that one of them came to me in anguish over burning out on $ISSUE_SIDE_JOB. I have no idea which name it was. I have no idea which face it was. I haven't monitored either of them enough to get a feel for their interviewing skill and style. I won't know who it is until one of them talks to me about the issue in conjunction with her name.
There are two young men at work, both new hires with the initials D. L. They are the same height, the same build, the same ethnic background. One of them wears a head covering off work. Head coverings don't wind up in the interviewing area. (Incidentally, I wonder how that would go over with an observant Jewish employee or potential employee. I think the workplace would be the one that would wind up changing, or else I'd raise a holy conniption fit (and believe me, when I throw an exception, I throw it hard), but it's not something I see about. Then, Phoenix isn't noted for a large Jewish population that I've noticed.
) I've interacted with the young man who wears the head covering off work enough to get a measure of his off-work self, and associate that with his off-work demographic lump and his voice and any other distinguishing features he may have, but depending on how much his on-work persona differs, would I recognize him if he sat next to me? Probably not.
When I worked at this workplace back in '01, there was one delightful MtF trans lady (saia1
, you were there then, do you remember her name? She had reddish short hair and tinted glasses and always wore such well-coordinated jewelry...) who got along with everybody. Then one day, she happened to be leaving the ladies' room just as I was entering, and someone else of the workplace was in there at the sinks. Once the tinted-glasses lady left the restroom, the other woman in there made the most disgusting and despicable comment to me about how men
should not be allowed in the women's
restroom, and someone should do something about it
. I guess she was expecting me to share her disgust and outrage. Unfortunately, since I had not yet grown a spine, I didn't do anything, much less puff up with fire in my eyes and a dagger in my mouth and cut the narrow-minded bitch enough holes to broaden her mind like I should have. What I did do was note who she was so that I would never open up in front of her again. I quit in spring of '02, but then came back in the spring of '04. Much to my chagrin, she was still working there... in fact, there were two
ladies working there, ladies whose faces and names I recognized, in this same demographic lump of short 40-to-60 round little bleach-blond with garish makeup. I had no idea which one of them I wanted to hit over the head with a two-by-four of tolerance and compassion.
(Since then, I think I've figured out which of them it would have had to have been, based on relative brilliance of lipstick and inversely proportionate brilliance of wit, but at the time, and for some months afterward until I got sat next to Neon Lipstick Lady a few too many times, I hadn't the foggiest which it was.)
Then there was the time when one of the phone goons pulled to assist changed her hair color. She was a recent-ish hire, and I hadn't worked with her overmuch. I looked up one day and wondered, "When did we get another one of the tiny cute Anglo girls? And how come she's an RPA already?" Then I caught sight of her name badge and realized that I hadn't seen the person associated with that name around much, and this girl must therefore be the same girl, and it was just darker brown hair instead of light honey brown with russet highlights. But until I actually saw her with a name badge in the administrative area and thus realized that it might be a new look for a pre-existing person, I'd appended her to the "tiny cute Anglo girls" demographic lump, not replaced the new picture for the old picture.
I learn quickly, I smile a lot when asking people to say their name so I can get them seated, and the people who have stayed past three months eventually start to stick in my brain as I catch them doing little things that set them apart as individually human rather than just a member of a massive demographic lump.