Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dangerous Doppelgangers

Has this ever happened to you?

Standing on line at the supermarket checkout, davening next to someone in shul, sitting next to someone at a meeting, you notice that the person beside you bears a strong resemblance to someone you know, and like. Instinctively, you feel and act more friendly to him than might be expected, perhaps drawing a suspicious look.

Alternatively, she looks like someone with whom you’ve had a run-in, and you start to shy away, perhaps drawing nervous glances.

This happens to me all the time. One person I met a few months ago resembles a cousin of mine. Another looks like the principal at a school in a community in which I once lived. A third matches a regular from one of my shiurim in Allentown, and a fourth strongly resembles a boy I taught for his bar mitzvah. Yet another looks like my children’s former pediatrician, and another like a person who gave me an incredibly hard time in my shul – a dozen years ago.

The result: I meet people and instantly feel friendly or cold, paternal or jokey or turned-off or trusting, based not on any experience with them but on experience with people whom they resemble.

I know it’s happening, I l know my reaction is just the product of a resemblance, but I feel it anyway.

Where does this come from?

1. Part of it is from the general disorientation of being uprooted from a small-to-mid-sized city where I lived for eight years, to a megalopolis with a ton of people I’ve never met. Since moving to Toronto in August, I’ve meet many hundreds of people, in all parts of the city. I see people in one place, then, weeks or months later, run into them in a completely different part of the city. I meet someone at Shopper’s Drug Mart, then in shul, then at a shiur, then at a shiva house… it’s all very disorienting, and remembering people’s names and associations and roles is occasionally a real challenge.

2. Part of it is from the mind’s natural urge to categorize: We make intuitive leaps in order to simplify our input, grouping people and interactions in different ways – and some of those leaps are just wrong.

3. And part of it is that physiognomy – the practice of reading people’s character from their appearance – is real. Posture, facial expression, alertness and more are often a product of personality, and so we tend to intuit, based on experience, that people who look alike will also have similar personalities.

And so I find myself asking myself, not infrequently (and agrammatically): Who do you think you’re talking to?



  1. I guess I'm a doppelganger, since people are constantly thinking that I'm someone they know (other than myself)

  2. What's even stranger is when you see someone who looks like a person you knew in the past in a totally different geographic location, so of course this person you are seeing can't possibly really be that other person, and then they address you by name and yes, they are that person from the past and can't understand why you didn't come over and say hello.

  3. Neil-
    Do you ask them, "Do you know who I am?" That tends to work really well with a glare, possibly with hands braced on hips.

    Been there and done that...

  4. I used to work in a clinic in London, and regularly arrived at 930 (late) after my school run. One morning, I walked in and the nurse was sitting behind the reception desk, white as a sheet. Shortly after I discovered that she had seen me come in at 9am, complete with my bicycle, and go into my room (the door opposite hers) and told the reception staff. They told her I wasn't in yet...
    Later that morning I walked past her and she actually crossed herself (she was of that faith) for protection.