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"Do you know who I am?"

I read a vent on someone's LJ that reminded me of something I wanted to post here as an educational attempt. It concerns people's amazement at my ability to recognize voices and tendency (in some cases) to come up and play some variant of the guess-who game. This has, unfortunately, resulted in my developing shame associated with admitting that I don't recognize someone. In a conversation with some people from church on Sunday, I realized that I really should leave the shame. Sighted people sometimes don't recognize a familiar person in a different context, or they see someone who looks a whole lot like a familiar person and mistake them... I make the equivalent mistake when trying to identify people's voices, especially in a crowd. The difference is that no one walks up to a sighted person and asks, "Do you know who I am?" It is acceptable to say, "I am really bad at remembering faces and names," or, "I remember seeing you here last week, but I don't remember your name." But because blind people develop the ability to identify familiar people by voice out of necessity, we are expected to perform in sometimes agonizingly uncomfortable situations. Saying, "I am really bad with voices," is not just an admission of personal need for a reminder. It means I'm not a good blind person. I have failed to meet the public's expectations of me.

I could write here about the impact of my mild hearing loss, and it would be relevant. My hearing fluctuates, especially when I have a sinus infection. I once had to send an email to a dear friend and tell him that I was sorry for not speaking to him when he greeted me very warmly in the hall at seminary. I had heard him but only put together who he was after the fact because of the wording he used. By that time he was gone, and I was very disturbed because I would have liked to say something encouraging to him. But the truth is that there are situations when my inability to recognize someone's voice has nothing to do with my hearing and everything to do with context.

I was once a very unhappy camper at a camp for blind children and youth. Normally a very exuberant camper, I listened to my heart and called my parents, begging them to come and retriev me. They asked if I couldn't make it through the remaining three days, and I said no, I really could not.

My parents were very intuitive. I had been attending away camps for four years and had always been very satisfied with the experience and eager to return. This, however, was a new camp for me. They knew that I would not have called home for no reason. My mom told me that they would see what they could do, but she made no promises.

The next morning, I set out to breakfast with my cabin-mates, who ranged in age from nine to seventeen. At the door of the dining hall, a child greeted me. I said a quick hello and thought it was sweet that Elizabeth, a nine-year-old from another cabin, recognized me. As I moved on in and headed for the breakfast line, the child spoke again. "It's your sister."

I broke away from the line and hugged my sister. My parents, of course, were standing by. I had not expected them until at least mid-day. The drive from Houston to San Marcus was a six-hour drive. Clearly they had taken me seriously and driven through the evening to get to me. But I could not recognize my sister amid other nine-year-olds when I did not expect her.

I used to think that there came a point of familiarity when people should not need to identify themselves to me; but it has always been difficult to explain this. The simple answer needs to be that it is never a bad idea to identify oneself but that in the familiar context where you see each other in the same place all the time there may, indeed, come a point where identifying yourself in that context is unnecessary. For instance, my friend, Leta, does not need to identify herself when she sits down next to me in choir and says hello. I've been sitting beside her almost every week for six months, and we have had numerous interactions outside of church. However, if she was to show up in a seminary classroom or in a doctor's office waiting room, I may or may not recognize her depending on how preoccupied I was with my own thoughts. I've learned to expect church people in the doctor's offices because this town is relatively small; but some degree of extra processing has to happen when I'm outside a normal context. As I understand it, the same thing can be true for people looking at someone... If they expected their sister to be at her job and she suddenly showed up in the grocery store in the middle of the day, some people would, indeed, do a double take.

So while I respect the idea that it is rather amazing that someone can identify voices, this is a plea to end the guess-who games for those who tend to enjoy them--unless you have a truly remarkable relationship with the person in question and know that it's all right to do this. My uncle and I have a bit of a playful routine that occurs only at home or in "safe" situations, and if we were meeting in public he would identify himself. I'd actually like to dispel the amazingness a bit if I could... If you talk on the phone and recognize familiar callers, you are completely acquainted with how our voice-recognition mechanism works. It is also a general encouragement to go ahead and identify yourself when you encounter a blind person. It makes conversation a lot easier. Oh, and please do stick around long enough for us to say it's good to see you. Some of us are a little slow in transitioning from that other thing we've been hearing, and once you're more than ten feet away or have started another conversation, you're out of range for us.

Please pass on a link to this post if you find it helpful.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 27th, 2008 01:50 am (UTC)
Hmm... this was interesting in several ways:
-I am horrible with names and faces, and I do much better with black women that have distinct hair styles and people with body piercings or tattoos. I also feel a shame with not being able to remember names or faces, especially since I worked as a hostess/cashier for years and because I'm supposed to talk to people for a career.

-and with the whole "go ahead and identify yourself" thing towards the end of your post, that's a Catch 22. My one friend, I guess she's really good at recognizing voices because whenever she calls me, she never ever leaves a "hey, it's so and so" she just goes straight into rambling and it takes me about 2 min to figure out it's her. She's also good at always being like "this is so and so" whenever we're together and she's introducing me to everyone in her apartment building and college.
Another blind friend, on the other hand, I guess I assume she recognizes my voice (because of the first friend), and I always here this pause for a few seconds and then "Oh! Hi!" real excitedly when she realizes it's me.

So are you a total? I'm just curious.

Happy Thanksgiving!!! I hope that it has minimal sicknesses.
Nov. 27th, 2008 03:14 am (UTC)
Thanks for your comments. The state of my vision is difficult to explain. I haven't been able to read for some 25 years, but I use my remaining vision quite often for navigation. Much of how I use it depends on lighting.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 27th, 2008 02:38 am (UTC)
Re: Similar situation for those with low vision
I think the problem for people with low vision is that depending on the lighting, sometimes we can recognize people and sometimes we can't.

A few weeks ago a teacher asked me to do a lesson on braille. I was 99% sure of who she was (I used to TOC in her class) and I said I would. Apparently I looked or sounded a bit uncertain because she asked my mom later if I'd recognized her. I chatted with my mom and explained that I confuse her with another teacher who looks similar. Same with two other teachers. My mom had just assumed that I recognized everyone by voice, and was surprised when I told her I'm actually horrible with voices. I would be fine with visuals, except that I can't see more than the most gross features like clothing and hair.

In my job I interact with ten people on an average day, and even more on a busy day. I've become used to using context, voices, and visual cues to recognize people. Despite this it still really helps when people identify who they are.
Nov. 27th, 2008 04:41 am (UTC)
Re: Similar situation for those with low vision
Yah the lighting condition, clothes they were, etc, really helps me to know who it is... but if I hadn't seen the person for such a long period of time, like someone from church from elementary school I ran into at the theater last week, had to tell me who it is... repeating three times. My hearing is harder to differentiate who is who, sometimes I can *like my parents*, but most of the time, this isn't something I rely on to know it is... I always have to ask. However, I can recognize the person if they are standing right in front of me ... the colour and shapes, and some of the folks I worked with at the college wear very similar clothes every day so it was easy, even the one instructor I had was *SHORTER8 than me.

A lot of people will just babble on and on, and not introduce themselves, and I end up giving them a blank stare... I always have to interrupt, and ask them who they are, then continue with the conversation once the name registers in my mind.
Nov. 27th, 2008 02:45 am (UTC)
I've often said that I am scared that some day I will see my parents somewhere not expecting them and not know who they were. Especially if they just said one word. Now if they said my name I would know because they have a distinctive way of saying my name.
Nov. 27th, 2008 02:45 am (UTC)
The guess-who game seems pretty rude to me. I'm glad I have caller i.d. on my phones, because people tend to call and just start talking without identifying themselves. I guess they assume I will recognize their voices, but a lot of the time I don't because I have a hard time hearing on the phone, especially if the caller is on a cell phone.
Nov. 27th, 2008 04:43 am (UTC)
This is more of an issue when you are meeting the person in-person, and not necessarily from phone calls as well. Since I have some vision, folks assume I'd recognize them visually when I can't.
Nov. 27th, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC)
Oh, I understand that. It seems so rude, and juvenile. Why people would want to do that is beyond me. It's definitely not funny or clever.
Nov. 27th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
I agree, and it is worse, when this isn't something I am able to readily do because I am also very hard-of-hearing.
Nov. 27th, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
PS, the guess-who recognition is much harder for me, as I am severe-to-profoundly deaf as well.
Nov. 27th, 2008 03:24 am (UTC)
My place of employment hires mostly blind and/or visually impaired individuals. I say this because...

Just today my co-workers and I were having a conversation about this and how I find it annoying as all get out when someone I've talked to for like 10 minutes expects me to 2 weeks later recall their voice. It doesn't work that way! So trust me, I am going to completely second the motion to make a plea to end the guessing games!

Another irritation is when people used to come up at college and say something like, "I saw you the other day. Why didn't you say hi to me?" Hmm, maybe because I didn't see you, litterally? And it's one thing when they really forget, as it's sort of a complement, at least to me, that they see me just that normal and forget my blindness, but it's the ones who are all put off that I didn't say hi and/or acknowledge that they waved at me. Sorry, the magic sensor to detect waving hasn't been invented! Sorry, I'll stop now.
Nov. 27th, 2008 03:51 am (UTC)
Over the years, I've developed a strategy to deal with talking to people whose voices I don't recognize. I will often attempt to ask questions that will help me get info on who they are without tipping them off that I have no idea who they are. It's also extremely rare for me to address people by name in conversations. All the better to not make mistakes.
Nov. 27th, 2008 05:28 am (UTC)
I, too, vote to end the guessing games. Ug, it's so frustrating sometimes!
I also agree with a lot of what was said here, and can relate similarly.
Nov. 27th, 2008 02:23 pm (UTC)
One of the worst experiences I had, or at least the most embarrasing, related to voice recognition was at my sister's wedding. She had a friend there named Charity who sounded a lot like her. I had spent two days around Charity as we were all preparing for the weddeing, so I'd usually been able to tell them apart. Well after the wedding, my sister, or so I thought, came over and gave me a hug, and made some kind of comment which seemed to confirm who I was. It's worth noting too that up to this point, Charity had not hugged me. She wasn't distant or anything at all, we just hadn't reached that point. So I said, congratulations! After a somewhat awkward moment she said, um let me go get Rachel... And I realized that it was Charity, not my sister, who had come over and given me a hug. Needless to say, I was horribly embarrassed. Fortunately, neither of them held it against me, but still.
Nov. 27th, 2008 02:59 pm (UTC)
I really hate it when someone I have not seen in some time comes up to me and says guess who. That is not even funny. I do pretty well with people that I associate with regularly, but there are others that I do not and many times I have just listened to them talk to find out who they are. I agree, that it is the polite thing to introduce yourself.
Nov. 27th, 2008 11:39 pm (UTC)
Spending all of my time growing up in a small town where you go through all grades from kindergarten to high school with the same 150 people or so (sounds like a lot but not really when you have that long to get to know the majority of them). Then I spent my last three years of high school at our blind school which again had a rather small population. So when I got to my college campus, it was quite a shock to find myself having to play the whole guessing game (normally without the preceeding "guess who"). Just people who began talking to me and me having to figure out who they were kind of like kl1964 described. I too have often felt very ashamed when I'm not able to identify people, but I don't think it's caused any major problems as of yet. It's a big strggle for me though where it never was before, and it's something I imagine I'll continue to deal with as an adult.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah Blake LaRose
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