Monday, June 06, 2011

Forgive me for being insensitive, but...

I'm going to write about something that I've almost never heard openly discussed, and hope that I manage to do so tastefully, non-offensively, and maybe even a bit jovially. Ready? Let's dive in.

Come on, admit it - at one time or another, you have found it difficult to distinguish between people you don't know well who are of the same race (and that race is different from your own). To put it indelicately, and more specifically, say you are, oh I don't know, a blonde American woman who moves to the UAE and meets a whole slew of Filipinos at church, all at once. This woman was me, and it was harder to learn all those Filipinos' names than it would have been for me to learn the names of a bunch of white-bread people in Provo, Utah (or wherever).

I experienced a lot of secret shame over this problem for a few months. I spent at least part of every Friday meeting scanning the faces in the congregation, trying to connect them with the names of people I knew I had already met. I studied the congregation's picture directory to try to get a better sense of each individual, so I could tell him/her apart from everybody else, and then learn his/her name. Are you feeling awkward and embarrassed just reading about this? Imagine how I felt when I was actually living it.

That awkwardness was almost immediately dispelled one Friday afternoon during church. I was in a meeting with some Filipina friends who were working with me in the children's group. One of them mentioned the name of an American man ("brother" was the word she used, since that's what we call fellow Mormons) in the congregation and another Filipina asked, "who's that?" And then, THEN, to my utter salvation, she continued, "I can't tell any of the American brothers apart. They all look the same to me!" The other three Filipinas laughed in agreement.

So I'm not the only one who has this problem, and neither are you, since I'm pretty sure you've experienced this to some extent in your own life. The good thing is that you can acclimate to a particular culture pretty fast. I've studied the Japanese language and culture for long enough that I no longer remember having a hard time telling Japanese people apart.

Again, I can't shake the feeling that we're not supposed to talk about this, but stay with me. What has been most fascinating about this phenomenon is being on the other end of it. In the Pre-K and Kindergarten classes at Miriam's school, there are exactly three white kids. All of them are girls with short blonde hair (Miriam is one of them; the other two are from South Africa and the UK). Over the past nine months of the school year, I couldn't tell you the number of times a classmate or parent of a classmate (but thankfully, not a teacher) has confused Miriam with one of the other girls. It happens all the time, everywhere. It's to the point where if someone calls Miriam "Isabelle" (the name of the girl in her class), she doesn't even bother to correct them (or have me correct them). She just laughs about it and carries on.

Of course, to me, Lily and Isabelle and Miriam look very different, even at a glance. But obviously that's not the case for everyone.

Meanwhile, my Filipina distinction skills are getting stronger as I get to know them and their children better, so that's nice.

And now, some discussion questions. What, exactly, is going on here? Is it simply a matter of me being used to relying on easy cues like variations in hair and eye color traits that are largely absent in some races? If so, then how do you account for the fact that I have never had this problem with Arabs? I know there are actual scientific reasons I could look up (...right?) but I'm more interested in hearing the theories of laymen such as yourselves.


trishtator said...

I'm so glad you are bold, Bridget. I've had this experience in both directions. In my ward with the Latino population, I was completely clueless.

The funny part for me is I've struggled with "my own kind." When I was in the marching band at BYU, there were a whole bunch of blonde-haired, taller, glasses-wearing, older-than-me males, and I could not sort them for the life of me! I would stand around and wait for someone else to call their names before I would address them. I think I finally got them sorted out by memorizing their clothes.

Now, I work for the LDS church, and with only a few exceptions, everyone I work with is wearing a dark grey suit, red tie, glasses, and brown hair. Nearly impossible to tell them apart! It took me about 3 months to tell people on my own team apart.

Amen, Sister, amen.

Nancy said...

Well, when we lived in Egypt I was told, many times, that I was blonde. I was like, "Uh. No. THIS? Is not blonde."

So, obviously different cultures have different ways of classifying things.

I once told a Korean exchange student that it was hard for me to tell her friends apart because they all looked the same (hair, eyes, etc) and she said that's how she felt about Americans.

Steven said...

I never had that problem with arabs. Or hispanics or latinos, either. I don't know why.

A lot of people have had a hard time telling me apart from latino people before.... which is weird, because I'm white.

Jessie said...

Like trishtator, I have a hard enough time with people of my OWN race. So it was really hard for me on Statia where all of the locals are black. If I saw someone - even a neighbor - "out of context" (ie not in their car, with their hair done differently, somewhere I didn't usually see them), I couldn't recognize them. What can I say? Some people are good with names, some with faces, and I'm DEFINITELY not good with faces. (Come to think of it, I'm not that great with names, either, but that's a separate issue).

My husband just doesn't get it, because he's amazing at facial recognition.

Jill said...

It is more embarrassing when you are the TEACHER and you call a kid the wrong name. I think it gets easier the more time you spend with a certain group of people.

One thing I do remember is that when I was on study abroad in the D.R., I had a few blonde friends and people always asked us if we were twins, in spite of looking nothing alike

Kathy Haynie said...

As a high school teacher in the northwest (US), I have the most difficulty with distinguishing boys with similar haircuts/builds/styles. I rarely confuse girls, although I do sometimes confuse their names (boys and girls) if their names begin with "A" or "J." I don't know why. I blame it on my first year of teaching, when A and J names were especially popular for that crop of 14-year-olds. Sometimes 8 or more in a classroom. Gah.

I know you said you only wanted layperson feedback for now, but when you're ready for a little something more, check it this blog post by Bryan Lewis, Chris' younger brother and my son-in-law.

Liz Johnson said...

I think it's a product of mostly associating with our own kind to a certain degree. Even if it's just within your family, you know that "Mom" looks one way, your sister looks another, and that your cousin Jane looks differently, too. Beyond that, we know that "Asians" have almond-shaped eyes, and "Blacks" have darker skin... and so we learn to identify them as a group, rather than as individuals. I think if you knew a black man named Paul really well, for example, and you had Paul swimming amongst a group of random black males, you would be able to pick Paul out easily, because he's a known individual with a name to you. But the other black males would probably all blend together. But I would guess that this would fade as you came to know/recognize more individual black males - you would start seeing traits that set them apart from one another, thus making them less of a cohesive group, and more of a group of distinct people that just happen to share some similar features.

If that was offensive, stereotypical, or anything like that - please, somebody, set me straight. That's just my working theory that I'm vulnerably throwing out there, since it could easily be a touchy topic.

Susanne said...

I have more of a problem with telling Asian nationalities apart. I've heard Koreans, for instance, are appalled that we mix them with Chinese or Vietnamese and cannot tell them apart. Once I meet people, I usually can tell them from others. I try to look at their faces well and associate some feature about them with their name so I can better remember. But I've not met a whole lot of Filipinas at one time so I might have the same problem as you if I were in the same situation.

I'm glad you bring up topics such as this. I enjoy reading the posts and comments.

JosephJ said...

Definitely. And Liz took my answer. Unfortunately, when we first see people, our mind tries to figure out what "bin" they belong in, with relation to ourselves. My skin color? My language? Taller than me? Fatter than me? Smarter than me?

People of a different race sometimes send our brains in overdrive trying to figure out all these other details since we are unfamiliar and have to start with the basics -OR- we are content to tag race in our brain and think, "The Asian dude," because in many circumstances this is enough to identify a person of racial minority. Until you work with a dozen Asian dudes.

But if you already know "Paul", you can pick him out of a crowd so fast... because you already have studied his posture, intricacies in body shape, mannerisms. I got pretty good with remembering faces when I lived in England and had exposure to all the nationalities in the Melting Pot.

Reminds me of a clip from No Time For Sergeants where Stockdale is asked about how his eye test went. The humor is that one of his buddies had just finished telling him that you respect your superiors no matter who is wearing the uniform. I guess in the military it's the opposite of "real life" where everyone basically boils down to a rank.

Jennifer said...

Totally agree with you here! I actually had some very interesting conversations with the people on my mission in Taiwan about this.

In America, we can distinguish people by hair color, eye color, and skin color and we get by ok. However, in an Asian country, those three distinguishers just don't cut it. Everyone has black hair, dark eyes, and around the same skin tone.

In Taiwan, the people would describe other based on the size of their nose or eyes and whether they were skinny or fat (since that's socially appropriate there.)

So I think part of the problem comes from using the distinguishers that work in your race to distinguish another--they don't always translate.

Also, the Taiwanese felt the same way about Americans. We all looked the same to them too. :)

Anonymous said...

We learned about this in psychology. It's called own-race bias. As far as I know, it happens in all countries. It definitely happens to me!

Matthew said...

Just as a side point, this is a very well documented cognitive feature of how our brains work. If you would prefer, I can link you the research, but this is basically a normal part of the human condition. It isn't a particular individual failing.

Bridget said...

TRISH! Thanks for chiming in. Always a pleasure to hear from you, and it's too rare! I had forgotten that I sometimes have a problem telling blondish clean cut young Mormon men apart when I meet a whole bunch at once, so I can see how seeing so many at work would be awkward.

Jessie, I'm working on my Filipino skills for now, but next up is the sizeable population of African men in our ward. It's even harder because they aren't married (or if they are, their families are not here) so I don't have wives and children to give helpful context.

It's interesting to read the other groups people have trouble with. I figured this was well documented but aside from that time in church (and with my own husband) I have never heard anyone talk about this openly.

EXCEPT I just remembered that one time a few months ago I read an article about Chinese people being able to tell, just from sight, whether a fellow Chinese person was Chinese Chinese or Chinese American (not mixed, just a 100% Chinese person who had been raised in the US). I wish I could find that article now, because that seems like a complication of this same issue.


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