Understanding Why People Choose To Look Alike
As you can imagine, the more people in a given place try to look alike, the greater a problem this presents for face blind people. We need for people to look as different as possible, if we are to tell them apart.
Of course, it could turn out that people would look alike by chance, but this occurrence would be quite rare, and at that frequency of occurrence it would seldom be a problem. Unfortunately, this phenomenon occurs in society at a rate far beyond chance, because, in their own efforts to "belong", people make an effort to look so similar that to a face blind person they look alike.
In choosing to look the way they do, people find two drives pushing them in opposite directions. People become uncomfortable if they do not see these two drives as being - from their perspective - reasonably balanced:
- Conformity. People want to look like their identity group. This drives people toward looking alike.
- Individuality. But they want to still be identifiable as individuals. This drives them toward looking different.
People who do not have face blindness don't all have identical abilities at recognizing faces and facial expressions. Some people are quite a bit better at these tasks than are others. Actually, these skills are economically valuable in such fields as sales, acting, management, and law. People who are skilled at facial identification are often drawn to those fields, because it's natural for people to pursue fields that they're good at and that pay well. When it comes to skill with faces, these people are, of course, the most different from face blind people.
In other fields of work, face skills do not matter so much. This would be the case in construction work, as an example.
In their effort to balance the two opposing drives, people who have great facial skills see subtle little differences easily, and they do not need as much difference as other people to tell people apart. In effect, their skills cause both of those drives to push the desired appearance of those people in the same direction - they want to look much more like each other than other people do. This is why a group of lawyers will tend to look a lot more alike than a group of construction workers.
Let's look now at how this effect causes problems for face blind people in different settings:
Managers tend to be at the high end on the faces-skills scale. Many, without giving it much thought, impose their own view of the world on others in the workplace, not realizing the extent of problems it may cause for people who are greatly different from them, such as face blind people. The problems are these:
- Some face blind people have a personal identity that is inconsistent with the "look" that managers want. Identity is a very strong drive, and failure to acquiesce to it causes stress. For some people the stress in complying is too great to bear along with the added stress that one gets in general from not being able to recognize people around the workplace.
- Even if one is allowed to maintain his personal identity, if everyone else in the workplace acquiesces in a scheme to make them all look alike, this still makes it tougher than it would otherwise be for the face blind person. He must still constantly struggle to tell people apart who mostly look alike. As well, those people very likely will have a "look" that is not the one with which the face blind person has the most skill. In addition, it may well be harder for him to like people who mostly look alike.
As one would expect, clothing and hair styles preferred by those at the high end of the face-skills scale are the worst styles of all for telling people apart. Business suits, for example, obscure the shape and movements of the wearer's body, and suits tend to all be pretty much the same style. The short haircuts and completely shaved faces that usually are adopted by people who wear this attire are also the hair styles hardest to tell apart.
A similar problem setting, of course, is an employment place where people wear uniforms. While "business wear" is often adopted by people in occupations who have high face skills, this is not usually the case with uniforms. In most cases, uniforms are instituted by the management but merely tolerated by the employees, who don't find the situation the ideal when balancing their own drives of conformity and individuality. For face blind people, this imbalance between the drives may be outside the tolerable range.
My experience as a face blind individual has been that I must seek work in an environment where my personal identity will be accepted, because the high stress that resulted when it was not accepted, or was merely tolerated, was detrimental to my health as well as interfering with my ability to do the work. The best place for me to seek work is in an environment where the people are among those easiest for me to tell apart, because positive social experiences at work are important to one's mental health as well as his advancement. What this means is that the "lookalike" environment fostered by some employers is not suitable for me and other face blind persons like me. Such places should be avoided.
All of the problems discussed above are brought on by contact with people, so an option, of course, would be to seek an employment situation where you work alone or mostly alone. A problem can arise with that scheme, though, if it thrusts the you into the position of being the business's manager. Most businesses require substantial sales efforts to keep them going, and good face skills often figure prominently in succeeding in sales.
Schools are places where, if people are left alone, they achieve a variety of appearances. If uniforms are instituted, of course they will cause the same problems in a school that they cause in a workplace, but in these ways the problems are worse:
- It is often not as practical to find another school to attend, as it is to find another workplace.
- A person is in school at that early age when his lifetime identity is set and his social development occurs. To develop as normally as possible, a face blind child has a tough enough journey through these years because he can't tell people apart. Adding to those problems by requiring uniforms or an unusually restrictive dress code can make an already bad situation much worse.
- An older student may already have his personal identity set. Instituting a policy inconsistent with that identity may well cause a lot of trauma concerning his own identity. It might also shift all the students around him away from wearing the clothing or hair styles that are the major ways he tells people apart. This could leave him far more unable to distinguish people than he was in a limited way able to do before.
Uniforms in a school setting are usually instituted to solve what is a minor problem compared to the major problem they cause for a face blind youngster. Of course, merely granting the face blind youngster an excuse from the policy will not solve a major part of his problem. In all fairness and in accommodation to face blind children, serious consideration should be given to dropping any policy altogether that strongly encourages students to look too much alike.
Almost all face blind people use hair styles to tell people apart, and generally, the longer the hair is, the better. For this reason, serious consideration should also be given to dropping any policy that encourages students to keep their hair short.
Confronting "dress codes" can be a difficult task for an adult. Few children can muster the personal resources alone to take on this problem, and for a face blind child who may be socially backward, taking on such a problem is doubly hard. This is one area that parental assistance is essential, to assure that the child gets an environment where he can develop socially.
Actors, and those who work with them, are another group that have high facial skills. Many actors do look alike. This makes it more difficult for face blind people to follow the plots of movies, TV shows, and plays than it would be if characters looked less alike and more like a random sampling of the general population.
Occasionally I've encountered a movie or TV series where the people don't all look alike. The writers of these shows for some reason are not driven to make everyone look alike the way most writers are. Needless to say, those shows have become my favorites.
Of course, what one does for recreation is mostly a personal choice, as is the clothing he wears when participating. Each form of recreation does carry with it a certain clothing style that most people wear, though, and each does draw people who tend to look a certain way.
Depending upon how one recognizes people, a face blind person will find people engaged in some forms of recreation are easier to tell apart that people engaged in others. Since most people engage in recreation to meet others, the ability to identify individuals is important. A primary way for me to tell people apart is their jeans, for example, and how they and their clothes move when they walk. It would not be hard to guess that I would find hiking to be a great form of recreation for me. Lots of hikers wear jeans, and when hiking people are in motion. Conversely, I would have almost no interest at all in going to the beach on a hot day, however, because everyone there, lacking their street clothes, to me will look alike.
Asking for Accommodations
When a disability causes someone substantial difficulty, he may ask for an "accommodation." This is most appropriate where the disability does not interfere in any major way with the task itself being undertaken, but rather, the difficulty stems from the environment provided for the task. Where the cost or other inconvenience of the accommodation is small, the accommodation is said to be "reasonable." In some places, such as the United States, laws require employers and others in certain circumstances to provide "reasonable accommodations." As you read on, note that accommodations needed by face blind people seldom involve any substantial cost, so they would legally be deemed "reasonable."
Do not hesitate to ask for an accommodation because your disability is "rare." Very few people need handicap ramps, but people build them anyway. And handicap ramps are not cheap! The rarity of your condition is not a legal defense to providing your accommodation.
When it comes to accommodations for your trouble telling people apart, they fall into two major groups:
Requiring people to wear name tags would be an example of the first; deleting hair code, dress code, or uniform requirements would be an example of the second.
- Directing people to alter their individual appearances so that they are easier to discern from others.
- Restraining policies that encourage people to look more alike than they would if "left alone."
In a brief encounter, such as when attending a meeting, or in fulfilling my need to tell waitresses apart, I have found name tags to be useful. Most people, though, find name tags annoying to wear, and will be reluctant to display one after their own need to tell people apart has passed. Name tags should not be overlooked as a solution, though, in situations where their use would be socially feasible. In some employment situations, security badges which contain the name are accepted by everyone without much resistance, so this approach has been successfully implemented in some workplaces.
There are some problems with the use of name tags that do not bode well, though, for them being a complete (or even satisfactory) solution by themselves:
- Name tags can only be seen from the front and up close. This may make them not of much help in some settings.
- Most people will tell you "they have trouble remembering names." What they are saying is that virtually nobody makes their mental "filing system" of people based on names (and face blind people are no different in this respect). This means that sorting people out based on what's written on their name tags is very awkward compared to sorting people out by what they look like. Baseball players, for example, have their names blazoned on them, and I still can't tell them apart fast enough to make use of the information. Most people get glimpses of their faces, and they can build a file on that. I really need to access the filing system I use in everyday life - comparing people's hair and clothing - and ball players in this regard all look alike. Another instance I can recall where name tags did not ultimately work was when I entered the Navy. All the people had identical hair and clothing styles, and I was hopelessly overloaded. The use of name tags, which everybody had, was wholly inadequate to the task. (This is probably so because names are verbal information, and non-verbal information is what works best to tell people apart. See the discussion of specific and general traits in Chapter 6.)
- All people, not just face blind people, feel strongly about their own appearance. In many social settings, most people would be very uncomfortable wearing name tags.
Elimination of hair codes, dress codes, and uniform requirements is more palatable to others than is the use of name tags. This approach to the everybody-looks-alike problem also works better for most of us, because the visual means that we normally use to tell people apart is more likely to be usable. When people are left to their own devices, they go a long way towards looking different from each other.
One of the easiest environments I have found to tell people apart, for example, is among a throng of patrons in a shopping mall. Nobody is coercing anybody there in any way to alter his appearance, and in that setting, people select a wide array of appearances.
When someone eliminates a code, people have to be assured that "they mean it." In many instances where people are left with the impression that there is remaining an "unwritten code," a majority of the people will go about 80% of the way towards achieving a common appearance, and most of the benefit in deleting the code is lost. On the other hand, a face blind person is typically not going to have any difficulties with a requirement that people be "neat" or "clean" (so long as such terms are not used as a subterfuge to mandate hair removal), and if people are left with the impression that only those things are the requirement, it will affect the face blind person little.
Name Tags in Lieu of Uniforms
Some businesses, where they want their employees identifiable, require distinctive name badges instead of a uniform. This works very well for face blind people as it gives us the best of both worlds!
Formality Versus Informality
It should be noted that some settings are deemed by society to be more "formal" than others. What is really meant by that is that those are settings in which conformity is to be more valued. This will dictate that the equation discussed at the top of this chapter will be pushed toward conformity and away from individuality. It will not be pushed, however, beyond what for most people is the "comfort range" - a spot still safely within the scope of their personal identity.
A push in the conformity direction is, of course, a push in the direction the face blind person generally is least compatible with. And it may well land in a spot outside the range of his personal identity.
Face blind people may quite normally feel the societal pressure to be more conforming in such a setting, but keep in mind they may be operating in a comfort zone different from most people. The tendency is to become more formal within the boundaries of one's personal identity.
As an example, my key traits are strongly associated with blue jeans and hair on one's shoulders, so I would not wear "dress" pants or tie my hair into a pony tail. Nor would I wear a tie, a suitcoat, or other clothing that to me seems inconsistent with a "long haired in jeans" look. Instead, to feel formally attired, I may select darker blue, newer jeans, and add a new shirt and shoes, with both the shirt and the shoes being of as dressy a style as looks proper with long hair and jeans. (My informal look, on the other hand, might be to wear a t-shirt, perhaps even an old one, and sneakers). As to my hair, to achieve a formal look I may tie it in place with a bandanna, which ties it down but does not remove it from my shoulders, rather than just let it fly free.
Those who know me would know that with this look I was at the formal end of my identity continuum. Those unfamiliar with me may not, and they may misread my opinion as to the formalness of the occasion as a result.
People do look alike, and this is more so in some settings than in others. In deciding how much to look like others, people weigh their opposing drives to be recognized as a part of the group and to be recognizable as an individual. A person who has trouble recognizing people will require a balance more towards having everyone look different, when he weighs those drives. Face blind people will suffer less stress and reap more enjoyment from social opportunities if they seek out those environments where people do not look so much alike.
In our final chapter, we'll look at a number of things we can do to improve our lives.
"Face Blind!" - Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Introduction Chapter 2 Discovering Face Blindness Chapter 3 Physical Causes of Face Blindness Chapter 4 The Importance of Recognizing Others Chapter 5 How Most People Recognize Others Chapter 6 Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face Chapter 7 How Non-Face Recognition Methods Work in Practice Chapter 8A ...Bill: How I Tell People Apart Chapter 8B ...Pertti: Recognition System - The Essence Model Chapter 9 Effect of Face Blindness on Emotions Chapter 10 Effect of Face Blindness on Sexuality Chapter 11 Effect of Face Blindness on Your Social Groups - BACK Chapter 12 Understanding Why People Choose To Look Alike - YOU ARE HERE Chapter 13 Ways To Improve Our Lives - NEXT
Appendix A How To Find Medical Articles on Face Blindness Appendix B Getting Diagnosed (Tested) for Face Blindness Appendix C Links to Other Face Blind People Appendix D Author'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 November 14, 1997, with addition of note linking Chapter 6 on January 1, 2002.