I am sure most people have been told that they look familiar at least once in their lives upon meeting a stranger. The trouble is that this used to happen to me a lot in my early twenties.
This used to upset me because my childhood indoctrination, religious and otherwise, had taught me that I was a unique individual, and wonderfully unlike any other. The frequency of these comments about the familiarity of my appearance dented this happy notion somewhat. The persistent problem to this day is that apart from family, I have been unable to find another human being on this planet who “looks like me”, and I do a lot of people watching.
Normally the puzzle of the origins of my biscuit face was easily solved back then because I had had limited exposure, as it were. This meant that if the stranger had had no contact with the school or university I attended, did not live in a nearby suburb or did not play field hockey or golf, then I could be pretty sure that they belonged to the group who astral travelled and mixed up realities with regularity. Alternatively, although doubtful in my view given the population explosion since the Industrial Age, we were both reincarnated beings with a common background in our respective previous lives.
If the stranger was not satisfied with the school–hockey–golf supposition, I confess that I used to be rather disarmed by the intense scrutiny which followed; the piercing stares; the chatter with the spouse or friend while the stranger tried to access his or her possibly dysfunctional memory.
Clearly, this was a social phenomenon that I was going to have to deal with, now that I was supposed to have grown up.
By the time I had lived long enough to have what one would call a career, I had become cavalier in my response to being told I looked familiar. As a being belonging to a minority population group in Zimbabwe – and, of course, depending on my take of the asker’s sense of humour – if the person was Black, I would respond, “Oh, that’s because all White people look the same, don’t they?” Because I had had lots of practise by then, this was invariably followed up a series of questions from me as to the other person’s professional life or history, or home town, or surname, the latter often being an important clue in that part of the world. The resulting conversation was almost always interesting, and normally resulted in the mystery being solved, and in some cases, the striking up of a friendship.
All human beings like the familiar things. We have a need for this comfort. I do know there are people who say that you remind them of someone, or that you look familiar because they cannot think of anything else to say upon first meeting. In such cases, I find it is best to hide one’s powers of discernment.
I was terribly shy as a child; even worse as a teenager. I finally realised that there was truth in what my mother used to say, “Imagine if everyone were shy – no one would talk to each other!” And, “Everyone else is just as shy as you are!”
By the time I had hit my forties the coin had flipped completely. I was no longer shy. Just the opposite! I loved the liberated feeling of being able to ask without a trace of anxiety if someone was pregnant or whether I had just committed a social blunder. Other favourites include: Is that your natural hair colour? So when are you two getting married? Are you gay, or have I just committed another social blunder? Where did you get your driver’s license? (I reserve that last one for certain situations only).
Naturally, some people take offence to questions of this nature, so one has to ask them in a way that will not embarrass, and hopefully, will result in a conversation.
The point is if you want to know something, you have to ask a question. And if you want to know where you might have seen someone before, you are compelled to interrogate. Most people are quite happy to talk about themselves, especially if you ask the right question.
There is a little app doing the rounds at the moment which uses technological advances in facial recognition to tell you which celebrity you look like. Natalie Portman would not be amused, to discover that she and I bear a 78% resemblance. It amuses me very much.
Now, when people ask me whether they have seen me before, I can confidently inform them that my facial features are a 78% match with a single photograph of the aforementioned actress.
If you know the joke, I shall have to confess right here and now – in case you’re wondering – that no, I am not Jewish.