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I have mild developmental prosopagnosia. It is very difficult for me to recognize people, particularly if I have not seen them in a while, or if they're in a context I'm not expecting.

If I have enough time (sometimes up to 10 minutes), I can usually figure out who they are, although I rely heavily on contextual cues for this (hair; clothing style; distinguishing marks such as tattoos, scars, or skin blemishes; body type; etc.).

On occasion, I will run into someone who appears to recognize me, but I have no clue who they are. Very rarely, it turns out they mistook me for someone else. Much more frequently I know them, but it is out of context and I don't recognize them.

When this happens, I usually try to act like I recognize them, but I fear it is not always convincing.

So, is there a tactful way to explain that I have trouble recognizing faces without seeming rude, or weird?

  • Are these cases where the meeting is fleeting, or does a longer conversation follow? – HDE 226868 Aug 25 '17 at 17:57
  • @HDE226868 It usually seems to involve about 1-5 minutes of subsequent conversation. – Beofett Aug 25 '17 at 18:12
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    Have you received any professional advice on how to handle such situations? – user3169 Aug 25 '17 at 18:48
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Should I keep doing this, or is it better to be honest? Is there a tactful way to explain that I have trouble recognizing faces without seeming rude, or weird?

It's always nice, to be honest with someone in a situation like this. I would like it if someone did the same with the shoe on the other foot. Not only do you now know them (to hopefully avoid the same situation again), but you'll feel a little less guilty for having that conversation thinking "Who is this person?!". It's pretty common (especially if you're busy and meet people all the time). I wouldn't say there is so much a tactful way to explain, but there are ways that can trigger your memory and/or get them to (re)introduce themselves.


Verily magazine wrote an article named "What to Do When You Don't Recognize Someone You've Met Before" offering a few (to me, helpful) tips in this all too common situation:

  1. Be proactive.

    If you see someone heading toward you with a big smile and a look of cheerful recognition, extend your hand with an equally big smile and say your name, introducing yourself to them as if you are helping them to remember. The best case scenario is that they will respond in kind. This strategy creates an opportunity for both parties' names to be voiced and minds to be refreshed without anyone having to ask.

  2. Be (partially) honest.

    Admit you can’t remember their name (while glossing over the fact that you have no idea who they are). Humility and gentle self-deprecation are important here. After exchanging warm greetings, apologize with a look of good-humored exasperation and say “I am so sorry, my brain is not kicking into gear . . . please remind me your name?” When they give you their name, respond as if it was on the tip of your tongue: “Of course, Deb—it's great to see you!”

  3. “How long has it been?”

    A vague prompt can lead to a discussion of exactly when you two saw each other last and yield clues as to how you know this person. Other good openers: “What have you been up to lately?” Another safe response is, “It’s nice to see you,” rather than “meet you,” suggesting that you remember meeting them before—even if you don’t.

  4. Offer an explanation.

    The truth may be that you vaguely remember the person, but it’s a case of the person being out of normal context. For example, if you occasionally see this person at the gym in workout clothes, and now they are dressed in a business suit, you can laugh when you make the connection and explain, “I didn’t recognize you. I’m used to seeing you on an elliptical machine!”

  5. Dish up a little extra kindness.

    The problem with forgetting that you have already met someone is that it makes them feel, well, forgettable. After you have established their identity and apologized for your memory lapse, compensate for any unintentional slight by showing plenty of interest in the person: “How have you been?” “What brings you here?” “When was the last time you went to that yoga class?” A little dose of genuine warmth and enthusiasm can smooth things over nicely while reinforcing your memory for the next time you meet.


Personally, I encounter this problem a lot because I have a terrible short-term memory and I don't always wear my glasses out with me. So, I'm normally happy to just openly do Tip #2 and say I don't recognise their name moreover who they are and then do a whole lot of Tip #5.


As a bonus (for future readers) a .PDF by the College of Education and Human Development on Strategies for Living with Prosopagnosia. Comments made by adults for children, but the information can be useful, regardless.

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Your problem can also occur in routine situations where we sometimes can't really 'place that acquaintance' and can feel at a loss to identify them, whereas they have placed us very well indeed!

(1) A trick I use is to keep it generic.

If I am not sure of the person's identity yet, I would make generic small-talk and allow them to 'lead' the conversation while giving me time and clues to identify them. It is most important to avoid guesswork that can lead to obvious blunders. You need not try to explain your unique condition which others can accidentally misinterpret, leading to unwanted inaccurate rumors about your 'visual disability.'

(2) Since you have trouble recognizing faces, you could pay attention to their voice or other mannerisms, in addition to information clues they provide, to eventually make a positive identification.

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Faking it is not outside the limits of polite interaction. It is also useful to ask them to remind you "What were we talking about last time?"

Anyone you do need to know should be made aware to some extent of your difficulty. Once I am familiar with my ever changing office mates I will let them in on my mild synesthesia which can make a difference on our work together.

The T.V., movie and radio star Red Buttons would often move through crowds of people saying to each one, "Good to see you again!" This would flatter those that had met him (some he neither recognized nor expected to) and pass over the heads of those who had never met him making them feel that they just had.

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