[Firstname] just a note to apologise if it was you I didn’t say hi to at [Event] today. Yes, “if”.
See, all my career I’ve worked with a facial blindness problem. I can usually manage my condition with prior preparation and in smaller groups but environments like conferences or large social gatherings it often get away from me.
I’m writing because it got away from me today and I think you’re one of the people I probably awkwardly stared at while I tried and failed to place you in my memory, then decided I couldn’t be sure if I knew you and walked off.
It’s nothing personal – in fact, most of this message is copied and pasted from a template I use for this purpose.
It bears no relation to how well I know someone or how much I care about them. I’ve forgotten beloved aunts, uncles and cousins at gatherings of my mother’s large family.
Sometimes I send this message to people who weren’t actually there, and sometimes I send it to someone I actually did speak to, who had no idea I’d forgotten their name and who they are to me.
It happens because if you catch me on the hop you might force me to try and bluff my way through the pleasantries – just in case you’re my cousin! It’s no accident I often address people as “mate”, “dude”, “darling”, “babe”, etc.
So maybe I actually don’t need to send this to you, because we didn’t talk, or we did and you didn’t realise I couldn’t remember who you were, in which case reading this may seem odd.
That’s also embarrassing but I’d rather apologise to a few ‘false positives’ than leave anybody wondering why I’ve walked by without saying hello. I’m not aloof, I’m just a little dysfunctional.
So, sorry if that happened, but also sorry if it didn’t. And if it did, I hope it doesn’t next time. And I’ll do what I can to make sure it doesn’t.
(End of template, beginning of blog post)
So that’s why?
Yeah, that’s why. Weird, huh? It’s taken me a long time to figure it out, and longer admit it to everybody, not just the people I message because I think I might have forgotten them.
What makes it better/worse?
Aside from embarrassment and stress, the busier the event, the faster the collisions and the more random the coincidences, the worse it gets. At events like TEDXSydney I can spend the entire day calling everyone non-specific labels like “mate” with partial-or-no idea who any of you are.
Greeting by shaking hands makes it worse — something about having to make eye contact, shaking your hand and beginning to converse all at the same time. You may notice me break eye contact and glance away from you for a moment in an attempt to free up some brain time for name processing.
Sometimes if we’re both slightly drunk, I’ve got no idea who you are and you’re too drunk to realise. Which can be fun!
Above all, take it as a compliment, because it strikes hardest and most completely when I bump into people I perceive to be successful, attractive, confident, outgoing and socially competent. If I can’t remember your name it probably means I think you’re amazing.
Is there anything I can do?
Thank you, yes, there is. You’ll do me a huge favour if you think it might be happening by approaching me and throwing me a huge hint.
- Something along the lines of, “I can’t believe last week we were in [place] talking about [thing] and here we are bumping into each other at [event]”. That is usually enough of a memory-jog to set me on the right path to digging up everything I should remember about you.
- Give me a big, long hug and (a) I get a few seconds to break eye contact, which helps me recover your name; and (b) I’m a great hugger.
That’s way less embarrassing for me than asking whether I’ve forgotten your name.
What not to do
Like most people with a problem, I obsess about it way too much, find it more embarrassing than I probably should. Which causes panic, which causes my memory to degrade still further.
Sometimes people take my facial blindness personally, and when I forget them they’ll insist I remember their name, and other details of our relationship, unprompted. And they’ll persist, or call other friends over to spectate while I grimace and shrug and apologise.
That sends me into a facial blindness death spiral in which I can sometimes spend the next few hours.
As a younger man I didn’t do much casual dating, not after the first few times a girl bumped into me unexpectedly at a party and tried to force me to remember her name.
One time it was so traumatic when I returned to the table of other friends I couldn’t remember anybody at the table for the whole rest of the night. I had to work hard at getting them all drunk so they wouldn’t notice.
Before I figured myself out, I had a troubled career in journalism and then PR. You’d think a person who has trouble remembering other people would steer clear of PR but I’m not that smart.
One day I met an influential journalist in a hotel lobby, and in the elevator ride up to meet my very important client, I forgot both their names.
My primary role to introduce one important person to another, and I couldn’t. I knew I should know who they were but I couldn’t even recall their first names.
As I led the journalist into the hotel suite I could only think of one way to avoid my dilemma – I turned to the hospitality cart parked in the kitchenette without even looking at my client and said, “You two say hello to each other while I get us all a coffee and some pastries”. It was weird and uncomfortable for everybody, but they had an interview to conduct so they got started.
As you’d imagine I didn’t stay in PR forever but somehow I managed to keep that client and my job.
Anyway, if I’m looking blankly at you, come up and hug me.