I live in a largish city and participate in fairly distinct professional and hobbyist circles. Every so often – maybe once a month or so – I meet a new person in one of them, who will swear up and down that they have seen me before, or that they have met me before, or that they know me from somewhere. But I’m pretty sure that they haven’t met me! I have a good memory for faces, and I’m quite sure that I have never met this person in my life. I know I’m not infallible, but I’m really, really sure.
It’s kind of weird and I’ve started using it as a way of knowing when I need a haircut – if I maintain my usual style well, it’s a little more distinctive.
My usual response to this is to politely but firmly insist that I don’t know them, because I don’t want to play that game of ‘where do I know you from’, where the other person lists all kinds of possibilities, knowing that it will never lead to a satisfying answer. I usually say “I think I just have that kind of face”, which is my actual current working theory about this. This seems to be sad and off-putting for the other person though, who is some perfectly reasonable stranger who shares at least some common interest with me, who I probably would like to get to know better, and here I am doing a thing that sort of shuts the social situation down and doesn’t leave the other person a way to get to know me. (I realize that sometimes folks will use this as a pickup line, but this doesn’t seem like that kind of situation.)
How can I politely disabuse someone of the notion that they know me from somewhere, without coming off as totally unfriendly? It’s awkward and I want to take the awkward away without pretending that it is possible that I may have shown up to a stamp-collecting meetup two years ago or something.
Also, if any of my doppelgängers are reading: perhaps this is good advice for you too, and I’m very sorry for any inconvenience I may be causing you.
Generic-looking white lady in her late thirties I guess
pronouns: she / her / hers
I have One Of Those Faces, too, as does Mr. Awkward, and over the years him trying to find me at a Women & Children First author event or me trying to find him after a Kids In The Hall reunion show has involved a lot of unintentional comedy re:
- Oh lord please don’t let me be misunderstood (accidentally hug the wrong person, ask them to hold my heavy bag while I go to the rest room, use a “you really had to be there” nickname).
- Whoa, I totally *am* a Type, and here we ALL are!
- Whoa, I totally I *have* a Type, and if things don’t work out for some reason, guess I know where to find the rest of the hot GenX-beardy-fellas-with-cool-shoes.
The mistakes in recognizing somebody don’t have to be the end of the world. If you’re at a social gathering or hobby event and think you recognize a fellow attendee, the universe can survive many passing “Oh, crap, I waved at you because I thought you were my friend, but now that I’m up close I can see that you’re not my friend, but hi, I’m Josh!” or “You seem really familiar to me, have we met?” interactions without anyone being a jerk. It’s not inherently weird to think you recognize someone it’s not weird to want to try to place someone or figure out a common connection you might have! When you do have someone or something in common it’s delightful! Just try keep in mind:
- Keep it light & appropriate to the venue.
- Consider context & privacy.
- Respect consent & follow the other person’s lead about what to do next.
Some potential pitfalls/peeves (a non-exhaustive list, to be sure) that come to mind:
a) “Wait…Who Do You Remind Me Of?” If you think someone you just met strongly resembles or reminds you of a celebrity, consider NOT mentioning that to them, even if you think that pointing out the resemblance is a compliment. Please, never assume they will take it in the way that you meant it, in my opinion this is one of those “you really have to know somebody” compliments. (i.e. I don’t look anything like Roseanne, Rosie O’Donnell, or the nice lady from This Is Us, I’M JUST FAT, which is fine with me, but also not a reason for you to just start naming all the fat people you’ve heard of when you see me. This happens way more than I would expect and it’s suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper weird every time.)
b) “Hey, Aren’t You The Guy Who Was In That Thing?” So, this is an outlier, but kindly consider that telling famous people that they look just like (who they actually are) or playing IMDB Improv: Live! From Hell! (where one suggests projects they might have been in until one happens upon a correct answer) are perhaps not the conversational gambits I would most recommend? Maybe it’s just decades of living in crowded cities, maybe it’s anxiety, maybe it’s working in and adjacent to media/performing arts and observing enough fans who can’t seem to let their idols pee or eat in peace or hearing about cringeworthy lengths people have gone to pitch their scripts in Hollywood (Trust, your show-running dental patient does not want to hear your log line when he’s in the chair with his mouth full of needles/blades)…whatever the source, I have developed both a strong desire to preserve the privacy buffer of others and a strong terror of being That One Weird Fan.
As a result, when I run into a famous person I admire in a context where they’re not explicitly Engaging With People In Their Public Work Persona (i.e. waiting in line for the restroom, being IN the restroom, relaxing in a quiet bar in a foreign city where they don’t expect to be recognized by fellow USians, charging their phone at the communal coffee shop table, being crammed into shared a taxi to Manhattan from LGA on a stormy night, or other routine human off-the-clock stuff), my preferred mode is to smile and say “hello,” reciprocate smiles and “hellos” as they are offered, and otherwise leave the person in peace unless they engage me.
I’ll maaaaaaaaaaaybe also say “Hey, hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I think you do beautiful work, please have a wonderful day” in passing, as I’m on my way OUT of the shared space, so there’s minimal interruption/or obligation, the same way I might tell a stranger on the subway with great shoes how much I like their shoes just as we pull into my stop. Here’s a free compliment, beautiful stranger! Bye!
Famous people are just people, hence I try to respect all the same “Please don’t talk to me”/”It’s okay to talk to me” signals other people use to make public spaces feel safer & less overwhelming. Is an artist I like wearing headphones, deeply absorbed in conversation with someone else, buried in a book or their phone, wearing sunglasses and hat indoors, never looking up or making eye contact with people, not smiling, giving monosyllabic answers to questions or greetings, in the middle of something that requires focus = Do not disturb! Are they out in public with their children or any children = DEFINITELY DO NOT DISTURB!
Also, since I don’t like it when even my favorite blood relations interrupt things I’m doing to get me to stop and pose for a photo, I am not keen to interrupt strangers, even really famous & photographically interesting strangers, to do the same, nor do I photograph them from afar without consent as if they are wildlife.
c) “Oh Hey, It’s Number 24601!” If you know someone from a professional setting where confidential stuff should stay confidential, like a medical office (financial, legal, government, other handler of confidential or sensitive info) please back off from trying to place them. Accidental eye contact? Go with the polite nod, at most. No return nod? They don’t approach you? LET THEM BE. Talk to the other people at the thing.
d) “Who Died and Made You Javert?” Seriously consider that where you might know somebody from is not a mystery for you to solve…or reveal. Especially if the context could be personal, vulnerable, and you don’t know for sure that you have consent to discuss/reveal whatever it is in another context.
You can be pretty sure this person dressed in men’s clothes to lead today’s business training seminar wore a dress and heels and had a different name the last time y’all crossed paths, you can be pretty sure the lady handling your parking ticket paperwork was the bachelorette singing the drunkest karaoke rendition of Waterfalls ever sung at the bar last weekend, your Sandwich Artist could have been leaving the hospital just as you were checking in, but you’re not a detective or contestant on a secret quiz show who needs to blurt out the answers to questions nobody asked! There’s literally no good reason to dead-name transgender people, say “Oh, wait, I know you, you’re that job applicant we didn’t hire!” or be the jerk who sought permission to “helpfully” go behind their cousin’s back to reveal the cousin’s strip club work to family. People contain multitudes, they don’t exist solely in the exact context & history you associate them with, so, please err on the side of giving people some space & privacy.
True story about that last point: When I was a teenager, some regular restaurant patrons where I worked decided that I must be related to them and they’d come in all the time, sometimes bringing members of their extended family to “get a look at me” or discuss “doesn’t she look just like _____?” because they had decided that I resembled someone in their family. The truth is I am adopted and I could actually be related, but a) that’s not any of their business b) the lunch shift in the smoking lounge of a combination Greek Diner/New England Seafood Haven was not the place I wanted to work all that out at age 17, also c) if I find out I am biologically related to those creeps someday it’s moot ’cause I don’t need any family who think it’s cool to harass teenage girls about private reproductive & family decisions, so byyyyyeeeeeeeee (& THANK YOU to good managers/hosts who shielded me from the weirdness).
For me as an adult, the source of the weirdness isn’t curiosity, the possibility of being recognized, even incorrectly, or with an imbalance of memory where they recognize me and I might not recognize them (after I’ve accumulated enough students and blog readers and lived in the same city for 19 years doing various public speaking stuff that last thing is actually pretty normal, and I am quite comfortable saying “I recognize you but your name escapes me right now, can you remind me?” because it’s the truth.)
The weirdness comes when a person I don’t know is investing an aaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwful lot in speculating or making assumptions about me, and my actual signals/words/distress/well-being/wishes for correcting the situation are not deterring them from pursuing Their Idea Of Me at the expense of Actual Me, ooooooohhhhhh craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaap, WHAT NOW.
What now is: We shut it down, because we don’t actually owe people either participation or patient endurance of futile guessing games about ourselves! And Letter Writer, I like your question a lot because it perfectly illuminates a common, manageable, not dire awkward problem with lots of room for mistakes and different styles, and reminds us of some things about manners & reasonable boundaries that can scale up or down or bet adapted as needed. For example:
- It’s okay to be curious or make a mistake about recognizing someone, and people who do this probably mean well more than they don’t!
- Even people who mean well can make you uncomfortable, and it is weird when people who just met you display incorrect assumptions or an overabundance of curiosity about you, and they won’t follow your lead to change the subject.
- The weight of those assumptions – even if they are born from enthusiasm and good intentions!- can manufacture an uncomfortable sense of obligation, imbalance, pressure, and/ or anxiety.
- You’re allowed to honor your own needs and comfort levels and set boundaries, even if the person overstepping means really well.
- Sometimes you can try all the things you know about politely changing the subject or dodging the questions, and yet still feel the weirdness, and feel like there is no satisfying way to resolve it.
- In that event, what does politeness require of you and what should you do about the awkward feelings (yours & other people’s)?
By naming and reviewing these dynamics and how they affect us, we get a chance to practice some things:
- We can remind ourselves that we don’t have to match what people think we should be like. Their assumptions are theirs, all theirs!
- We can remind ourselves that people can have feelings about us, and it can not really our job to do anything about those feelings. Letting other people, especially strangers, own and care for their own feelings is a learned skill for some of us, returning the responsibility for awkwardness to the sender or letting something be unsolvable (by us, right now) is a form of practice.
- We don’t owe anyone congruence with their assumptions about us or a performance thereof! (For example, you don’t owe people a happy, functional family free of toxic interactions or estrangement, an economic or professional status that matches what they think someone like you should do for a living, you don’t owe it to anyone to match or define a race or ethnic identity people think you have, or match people’s expectations or labels about gender or sexual identity, disability/health, etc. etc. etc.)
- We don’t owe people a correction of their assumptions, details about our lives, “The Truth,” etc. For example, it’s not always safe for marginalized people to confront or correct others about mistaken assumptions. Sometimes the safest thing is to say “cool, right on!” and smile while you move to safer ground.
- If we’re making small talk/chitchat with a new person and we try to politely change the subject and the other person persists in their inquiries about a sensitive topic (or none of their business topic, or, “Hey, you’re just wrong about that, stop talking now” topic), they are the ones making it weird, not us!
Good news! I think there is one possible adjustment/correction that can rescue this kind of award conversation: If subject changes or hints or polite demurrals aren’t working to get the conversation back on track, before you write the person off, try adding a direct instruction for what you’d like them to do next. This way you don’t have to figure out whether someone is being oblivious, deliberately rude, or just drowning in an awkward enthusiasm/curiosity spiral that they can’t get out of now that they’ve started. Whatever their intentions, once you tell them “HERE’S WHAT I’D LIKE TO HAPPEN NOW,” hopefully they’ll grab on and y’all can swim to less awkward waters. If they don’t, you tried, and it’s okay to walk away.
Letter Writer, in your case, issuing a direct instruction could work like this:
Awkward Stranger: “Hello, I’m [Name]. Wait, don’t know know you from somewhere?”
You: “I don’t think so! But I have one of those faces, so I get that a lot. I’m [Name], nice to meet you.”
Awkward Stranger: “But I know I’ve seen you before. This is gonna drive me nuts until I remember. Was it at _____? Or ______? Or do you know _____?”
You: “It’s a big city, so, entirely possible that you spotted me another time or we know somebody in common. Since I don’t remember you, let’s start fresh from right now! What brings you out tonight?” (End by asking them a question about themselves, which they can answer correctly!)
People have choices, and their choices can split the conversation into some Choose Your Own Adventure options, right?
A. Awkward Stranger Who Can Probably Hang: “Oops, sorry, maybe it will come to me. Anyway, I’m here to learn about (topic) or (do fun thing at event).”
You: “Yay, me too. Have you done [fun thing] before?”
:pleasant chitchat ensues, you have now met each other in the present tense!:
B. Awkward Stranger It’s Okay To Wander Away From Without Further Attempts To Engage: “No, I am sure I know you from somewhere. Could it be ____? Or _____? Or ______? Have you ever been to ____?”
You: “Hate to interrupt, but none of that rings a bell! Nice meeting you, though! (+ walk awaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy).
That’s right, you don’t have to stand there and take the pop quiz that is happening between a stranger and that stranger’s brain! One power you have, especially after you’ve tried explicitly to redirect the conversation, is to stop rewarding behavior that makes you uncomfortable with further attention. It’s okay to gently interrupt, move seats, go to the rest room, grab a drink of water, visibly turn away, take/make an important phone call, or go find someone else to talk to. It’s okay to do these things even if you think it would upset this person a little if you stopped hanging out for their game of questions or if you think they Basically Mean Well. You can do it with a smile, with pleasant words, in a way that lets everyone save face if you want to – I try my best to stay pretty pleasant if the person is not being actually mean or otherwise inappropriate and save the flat “Wow” for when I think someone is being a jerk – but you can take evasive action and you don’t have to be perfect when you do it or explain yourself. And it’s okay to evade someone who is pushy about this even if they are right and it turns out they have seen or met you before!
You’re not being mean if you set a boundary or redirect a conversation and walk away if the other person won’t go with your flow. Think of giving someone a clear instruction about what you need as giving them a lifeline, and think of walking away as giving them the gift of some time to recover from a mistake and change course. That way, if Awkward Person B approaches you again later and resumes the awful BUT WAIT, SERIOUSLY, WHAT IS MY MEMORY OF YOU? pop quiz, you can evade them again, and be even clearer: “Hi, I get that it’s really bothering you that you can’t place me, but I really need you to find a new topic – I don’t want to play this game with you, and I’d like you to stop now.” Whereas if they approach you later and talk to you about regular stuff, maybe they just needed an extra nudge and a little time to pull out of the weird spiral.
Hopefully this will help you assert yourself, cut awkward interactions shorter, and separate the enthusiastic from the consent-ignorers.
Moderation/Comment Note: Hopefully I didn’t fatally hijack my own post by mentioning my personal celebrity-recognition preferences (which are my ways, they don’t have to be yours if you have some you’re comfortable with or especially if you have more experience with all that than me!), but it’s worth saying explicitly: Please don’t chronicle actual celebrity encounters you’ve had, awkward and otherwise, in the comments to this post, thanks! My whole deal is that I want the famous people I admire to have privacy, or whatever shreds or illusions of that remain possible for them, and I want to support them in drawing their own boundaries between Hello, Fans! Let’s Selfie The Shit Out Of This Con Appearance/Yes, I Am Wearing Tons of Designer Logos All At Once, Thanks For Noticing!-time and Look, I Just Needed Toilet Paper And Coffee/ Do You Really Have To Yell My Catch Phrase At Me Right Now, In The School Pickup Line?-time. I want all of us to have that, the Letter Writer, you, me, the people who made your favorite things, so that when we do connect, we can all relax and know it’s consensual, welcome, respectful, and sincere.
I would like to know about successful redirects, where you met someone new and asked them to change a subject and they actually did.