Coping with Face Blindness at Work

  • If you’ve always had trouble recognizing people, you may have prosopagnosia, or face blindness
  • Those coping with a mild form of face blindness are often anxious and awkward in both professional and social situations
  • Tell people at work about your condition, and use notes, along with other strategies, to identify people

Are you terrible at recognizing people?

Have you offended someone by not remembering them when you’ve met them several times, or even work in the same firm as them? Are you often embarrassed and anxious about your inability to recognize and place people? Are you unsure of who a person is if they get a haircut or change something else about their look? If this sounds like you, you may very well have face blindness—probably a mild form if you made it to adulthood without knowing exactly why you’re so bad with faces.

What is Face Blindness?

Face blindness, or prosopagnosia, is a cognitive disorder that affects a person’s ability to recognize faces—even their own face, in the most severe cases. Face blindness exists on a spectrum, so while there are people who can’t even recognize their own family members, there are those who struggle but aren’t affected enough to realize that they even have a problem. A person with face blindness might just conclude that they are unobservant and need to pay better attention when they meet people, while those around them might decide that they are simply rude. So if you’ve always struggled in the ways mentioned above, take heart that you could just have been born that way, and you’re not doing anything willful or wrong when you don’t recognize people who always seem to recognize you.

Researchers believe that about 2% of the population suffers from some form of face blindness, after initially thinking that only the rare, severe form of the condition existed. The condition is not at all related to memory in other areas, IQ, or learning disabilities, though there is sometimes a correlation with having a bad sense of direction. Most people who have the condition have it from birth, though one can acquire prosopagnosia from a stroke or other traumatic brain event.

Why Face Blindness Sucks

Those with face blindness are often anxious and stressed about meeting new people, particularly several new people at once at a party or when starting a new job. Just think about how many new colleagues you meet on your first day at a firm, and how daunting it would be to know that you’re expected to remember who these new, similarly-dressed people are when you can’t rely on their faces the way everyone else can. Or hanging out with friends of friends who you’ve met several times over the past couple of years…and sweating because you’re only pretending to know who most of them are until they say or do something that triggers your memory so you are able to identify them by something other than their faces. In short, face blindness sucks both in your personal life and at work. It can get you a reputation for being a jerk, embarrass you, and even make your fellow lawyers dislike you or peg you as having a terrible memory or being less than intelligent.

Tricks to Deal with Face Blindness at Work

Face blindness can be anxiety-inducing in any situation, but the worry that an inability to recognize people could affect your job is often paralyzing. If you arm yourself with strategies to help yourself along the way, you can avoid embarrassment and thrive no matter how many unrecognizable faces you must contend with.

  • You might initially feel uncomfortable with the idea, but honesty can get you a long way. Simply telling new people “Hey, I have this condition that makes it difficult for me recognize faces, so please don’t be offended if I don’t recognize you” can go a long way. Some people may ask a few questions about it, giving you an opportunity to spread the word about the little-known condition. And you may even run across someone who exclaims “Me too!” You especially want to inform managing partners or any higher-up who would be offended and judge you harshly for not recognizing them. Even if they think it’s weird, at least they’ll know what to expect.
  • Do what you’ve probably been doing your entire life, but more consciously: If you didn’t realize you had prosopagnosia for most of your life (or until you started reading this article), you have likely developed various ways to recognize people—or pretend to recognize people until you can figure out who they are by means other than looking at their faces. If you have an assistant, enlist them in discreetly identifying people for you whenever possible. Take notes describing people by the identifiers that stand out most to you: Hair color, height, voice, etc., and memorize those. As long as they don’t drastically change the way they look, this can be quite helpful. In meetings, encourage name tags whenever you can.
Do you have any special strategies you employ to recognize people? How has face blindness impacted you?
  • When networking with people it’s obvious you have met a few times but don’t recognize, you can always say “Hey, let me get your email address again,” and have them write it down. It will often include their first and last name.

Prosopagnosia can be annoying and anxiety-producing, but you can mitigate the effect on your career if you develop and employ coping strategies.

What's Next

Over the next month, let as many people as you’re comfortable with know about your face blindness. Work on targeted strategies to identify people and see if  you can improve, as well as lower your anxiety level and raise your confidence when dealing with people.