Face Blind!

Chapter 11

Effect of Face Blindness on Your Social Groups


Two Variables To Consider

We will look at these two issues that arise when considering how well one might fit in with social groups:

  • The composition of the group.
  • The size of the group.

Then we will conclude with a look at the overall picture - how face blindness affects the number of friends and acquaintances one has.

Group Composition

Groups of people do vary. Despite a widely held view that "people are the same everywhere", this is not really true. Here in San Francisco, for example, the number of those who drive buses who are black far exceeds the percentage of blacks in the city's population. If one should have a culture that clashes with that one, he would not be happy working there.

That one circumstance is only illustrative, but it is given to point out that people in varying professions, hobbies, and locales vary widely. This is not the exception. It is the rule. And a face blind person, who often has a unique tribe, culture, and identity, needs to give this situation more thought than most people do.

The Construction of Your Tribe

A face blind person may construct a tribe with different membership qualifications than others around him use. If his "type" circuits are the main ones he uses to differentiate people, for example, his social group will likely include people of only one sex. Prime candidates for membership in any face blind person's circle will be those people who exhibit the face blind person's key traits.

The face blind person will not likely find that group in place. Instead, he will probably assemble it with people whom he finds scattered among many other existing groups. He may discover some hobbies, for example, where significant numbers of "kindred spirits" congregate, and from among those who attend, he can select those with whom he relates best to join his "tribe". This works somewhat well in social situations, but as we'll discuss later, in the workplace one has far less control over who will surround him.

Because social settings with carefully selected people constitute the major opportunity of a face blind person to socialize, it is most likely that it is in this setting and with those people that he will build, and nurture, his tribe.

The Need To Have Tribe Members Around You

As humans, each one of us has in his mind identified a tribe. None of the problems we will discuss here will occur as long as this is the group you are able to spend your time with. Many people fashion their lives in a way that they never come in contact with anyone outside their tribe. If the tribe they have fashioned in their mind for themselves is large, that can easily be done, and such people can't imagine what it's like to not have their tribe be the people around them.

For some of us, though, our abilities to identify people are very limited, and of necessity we may have selected a tribe that is very small. Furthermore, the members of the tribe we have selected may not similarly feel so strongly about each other and as a result the group is widely dispersed.

A Tribe That Works - Our Friends

We often have no trouble satisfying the drive to find tribe members for friends, because we can pick and choose whomever we want to be in this group, one person at a time. I can have a party at my house and only invite bearded men in jeans whom I easily recognize, for example, and all of the disadvantages of being face blind vanish.

I was doing that, of course, years before I discovered my face blindness. Many years ago, a friend once commented that most of my friends had beards. We were at a gathering at my house, and just by looking around us, the truth in what he said was undeniable, but back then I of course did not know why. Now I realize it is natural that one would seek out those he can recognize and remember, and since one can choose for friends whomever he would like, this really does not cause any major problems. Knowing to whom you are talking is part of having successful communications. People who think communications with friends are important, all the time select for friends people who know their language, for example. I don't feel the least bit guilty at similarly being selective.

There are some instances where having such a small tribe can cause problems, and they generally arise when you are unable to keep non-tribe members out of your life. This can particularly be a problem in places of employment, where someone else picks whom you will be surrounded with, and you have little say.

How One Can Feel About Non-Tribe Members

When it comes to non tribe members - those people who are tough to identify - honestly, it can be tough to not dislike them. In a hearing impairment seminar I learned that I disliked people whose speech I could not understand, and I was told that this was a common reaction for hearing impaired people. I have since realized I also dislike people whom I can't readily identify. This parallel reiterates the reality that face blindness is a communications impairment. I feel the dislike to be something primordial that arises from within. I do wonder if it goes back to the fact that you can recognize and understand people from your own village - your friends - and have difficulty recognizing and understanding those from other tribes - your enemies. I know from experience that having tribe members around enables me to lay off stress, while when they are absent it builds. In one job after several tribe members left to be replaced by others who were not tribe members, my stress level rose significantly. I felt like I had become a prisoner of war. I guess being a captive among non-tribe members is supposed to make you feel that way.

The Need To Be a Member of Your Own Tribe

In a primitive setting, survival mandates that you be accepted as a member of your tribe. Thus it is a human trait to be very strongly driven to maintain a personal identity that appears to us to put us there.

To give you an example of how strong this drive is, I have talked to people who want to be the opposite sex to what they are, and my drive to be part of my tribe is just as strong. I wouldn't dream of cutting my beard or hair, or of wearing "dress up" clothes. I'd feel as out of place doing so as the average guy would feel in high heels and a dress.

To me I take people who are hard to recognize as nobodies. Men with little hair, men in suits or uniforms, and women of all kinds (except those in my close family) for the most part do not exist in my life. I imagine what I feel towards those people is what most people would feel to a group of people who had their faces smudged away. They are the dark nameless faces in distant trenches. I certainly don't want to look like that. I don't want to be a nobody. I choose to be a somebody. I identify people by their long hair, beards, and jeans, so that is my identity. Hair and jeans have been my key traits for identifying people since childhood, and they will remain the key traits for my own identity for all time. Anyone who thinks I would cut my beard, or my hair, or not wear jeans has lost touch with all reality.

I wish to add that everyone - yes, even you - has limits beyond which he won't go. Putting "the average guy in high heels" is a good example. Though people all have their limits, they don't understand ours. Perhaps it is that their limits have never been tested, and they don't think it will happen to them. Several of us have been hassled by employers, for example, that just "don't get it." All people have a need to maintain their identity, but until such time as their own is challenged, they give it no thought. They take it for granted as much as the air that they breathe. Maintaining identity is a lot like maintaining that supply of air, though - one misses it right away if it is gone, and he is driven to fight like crazy to restore it the minute the supply is cut.

What Work Situations Work Best

Unlike in social settings, where one has a lot of control, in work settings one has little. All work situations cause stress. In addition to the stress one gets from the work itself a face blind person who has identity issues in conflict can get additional stress from these sources:

In several jobs I have been amidst lots of non tribe members and under pressure to assume an appearance inconsistent with my identity. Being surrounded by the wrong people, I felt an intense loneliness, and I placed my hope in, in time, being surrounded by the right people, so that the stress would go away.

In time I had to quit work for a while to sort all the feelings out. When the dust finally settled, I realized that those conflicts will almost always be there for someone in a small minority, because who you will be surrounded with is a real lottery, and for us the odds are bad. Therefore, the answer to the loneliness is not to seek out work where you get lots of human contact. Since you can't control the quality of it, it is likely to mostly be bad.

Instead, I now realize the best place to be is where you can work by yourself, with little contact with others. This way you will not receive as much stress at work to exhaust you, leaving you with energy to actually do the work and also to pursue a social life outside of work. Also, if you have little contact with others, people are less apt to become obsessed with what you look like.

And this brings us to our discussion of social group size.

Size of Social Groups

One could say that social groups come in three sizes - small, medium, and large. The problems they present are different, and we'll get around to them in a minute. First, though, it helps to realize which size of group one is dealing with.

What matters is how many people you are expected to recognize. You will find thousands of people around you if you take the family to Disneyland, but you only have to recognize a few. So this is really a small-group encounter. On the other hand, a receptionist in an office with only one other person may be in a large group situation because of a need to recognize any one of a thousand clients who might walk through the door.

Interestingly, living in a "small town", unless it is truly tiny, presents a large group situation, since you are constantly expected to recognize many people in such a place. On the other hand, a large city, where you are seldom expected to recognize others, more often supplies a small group situation.

In any setting where it is possible, face blind people in effect compile a "guest list" of those they might be expected to identify. Each person seen then is checked against that list. The number of people on that list, plus how easy they are for the face blind person to positively identify, are the factors that actually determine the difficulty of the situation. So what matters with the size of a group is not how many people are there, but how many are there that you must recognize.

After I discovered my face blindness, by the way, my stress level in many group settings went down considerably. I attribute this positive change to the fact that I lowered my expectations to a reasonable level. I had trimmed the guest list.

Small Groups

Home Life and Close Friends

Family members are seen many many times, so they are usually not a problem, and no face blind person would normally choose his spouse from among those he can't recognize, anyway. One does not in that sense choose his children though, and I know of one face blind guy who has almost picked up other people's children instead of his own at a day care center! And as I told you I once failed to recognize my mother. But generally, family and home are places one can take a bit of a rest from face blindness.

Close friends are not generally selected as such, if they cannot be recognized. So with friends we can also take a break from face blindness.

The main problem my face blindness causes me with family and friends is that many entertainment activities I might otherwise enjoy with such people are not much fun. Plays, movies, and TV shows are not that enjoyable when you can't tell the actors apart, because you can't follow the plots.


Very small groups may not be the answer when the face blind person does not have control over a group's composition. If identity clash problems are not present, a small work group can be great, but the makeup of the group can change literally overnight at someone else's whim. A small group is best not counted on, if its being socially satisfactory over the long term is important.

Medium-Sized Groups

Because a face blind person will generally avoid large groups altogether, it is in medium-sized groups where the face blind person is most apt to be tested. A medium sized group can be handled, particularly if a chunk is broken off of it to be one's tribe. In comparing that chunk with the main group:

The face blind person's group of acquaintances will not only be smaller than others', but it may be smaller in a not-so-graceful fashion, because he will make it smaller by excluding people consistent with his group boundaries. This may not make sense to others who have drawn their group boundaries differently. People who are thereby excluded will take notice, and they are not generally pleased, particularly when they don't know or understand the reason for it.

As we discuss social and work settings, notice there really are few coping skills to be invoked. If you can't recognize someone, you can't. The two tools that we do have at our disposal are:

Strictly Social Settings

In a strictly social group, the face blind guy often has some control over the group's composition, and he certainly has control over who he chooses to talk to, or whether he shows up at all. So these occurrences are not an overbearing problem. Furthermore, it is often quite easy to break off a few people from the mass, and treat it as a small group encounter.

When doing that, a smart face blind person will tend to select recognizable people to socialize with in a medium sized group. Not doing that can cause embarrassment later when not recognizing people you've spoken to minutes before.

The best thing about strictly social settings, as contrasted to work settings, is that one does have a lot of control.

Work Settings

In an uncontrollable situation such as at work, unrecognizable and non-tribe people can be quite common and very "in your face", and stresses between a face blind person and those people can escalate. What works best in a medium sized group is to make it a small group as best as you can, by seeking a position where little to medium levels of contact is required with insiders, and virtually none with outsiders, is the norm.

Staying in a medium sized group may have advantages over going to a small group where there may be no people you can relate to at all. It may be possible to learn who everyone is in a medium sized group, and the group may be large enough that some people you do relate to ("tribe members") will be there. And if you have little contact with outsiders, stress from total recognition failures should be infrequent.

Large Groups

Most face blind people avoid groups where large numbers of people must be recognized. This is not to say that some face blind people don't take on situations where they have to deal with large numbers of people, though, because they do. They complain of a lot of stress from it though, and one's energies might be better spent elsewhere.

How Face Blindness Affects the Number of Friends and Acquaintances One Has

Face blindness very much attacks the periphery of one's collection of known people. Put simply, no people recognize strangers and almost everyone (including face blind people) recognize those who are close. What sets us apart is our failure to perform with the periphery.

This periphery is important! It is where most of one's social world lies, since one typically has a handful of close people and hundreds of acquaintances. The periphery is where we do that all important "networking" that enables us to advance in our careers. It is where we feel connected to the politicians, actors, musicians, comedians, and others who provide society with a common culture. And perhaps most important of all, the periphery is where we farm for new friends. Old friends die, move away, or drift away as a natural process. Unable to work the periphery well to bring in replacements, face blind people often end up with less close friends than they would like. The result of this can, of course, be loneliness in one's social life and missed opportunities in one's work life.

How Much the People Look Alike

How much people look alike can vary widely from one group to another. In many social settings, people actually want to look alike, and this can cause the face blind considerable problems. We next look at why people choose to look alike.

"Face Blind!" - Table of Contents

Chapter 1Introduction
Chapter 2Discovering Face Blindness
Chapter 3Physical Causes of Face Blindness
Chapter 4The Importance of Recognizing Others
Chapter 5How Most People Recognize Others
Chapter 6Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face
Chapter 7How Non-Face Recognition Methods Work in Practice
Chapter 8A...Bill: How I Tell People Apart
Chapter 8B...Pertti: Recognition System - The Essence Model
Chapter 9Effect of Face Blindness on Emotions
Chapter 10Effect of Face Blindness on Sexuality - BACK
Chapter 11Effect of Face Blindness on Your Social Groups - YOU ARE HERE
Chapter 12Understanding Why People Choose To Look Alike - NEXT
Chapter 13Ways To Improve Our Lives


Appendix AHow To Find Medical Articles on Face Blindness
Appendix BGetting Diagnosed (Tested) for Face Blindness
Appendix CLinks to Other Face Blind People
Appendix DAuthor's Information Page

This document is copyrighted. For information, or to contact the author, go to Appendix D, the Author's Information Page.

Text of this chapter last revised April 29, 2008.