I sat down on the train the other night and realized the young woman seated facing me looked familiar. That’s not that unusual. After riding the train for nearly two months I’m starting to recognize the regulars. I figured she must be one of them.

Partway into the trip she started asking me about the potluck. I suddenly realized she had been at our department potluck just the day before, visiting from another building. I felt embarassed for not recognizing her, but it was an easy, innocent mistake.

Context is everything when it comes to recognizing people, at least for me. Sure, there are people I spend a great deal of time with who I would recognize in any setting. But there are many people who we see regularly enough to recognize them, but are largely part of the background noise of our lives. If you see them in a different context from where you usually see them you will know that you know them, but you may not remember where you know them from.

Clothing is also part of context. There are people at church or at work who, if I see them out in public in more casual clothing, I have difficulty placing. On the other hand, the gentleman from church I encountered a few weeks ago on the train I recognized instantly, even though it was a different context, because he was dressed pretty much the same (but could I remember his name? Of course not!).

I suspect much of this is just how my brain works. I know others who can instantly place a face and name no matter where they see them. I’m a little envious, though not enough to actually try developing the talent.

So if you bump into me somewhere and I don’t recognize you at first, be patient with me. I’m still sifting my brain trying to establish context. I’ll figure it out if you give me long enough. Or better yet, help me out. You’re probably not in your natural environment.

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