Why I Don’t Ask for Directions

a sign post showing city names and the distances to travel to themFor as long as I can remember, there has always been a running gag among comedians and comedy writers about how men would rather lose a limb than ask for directions. It’s a generalization that may not apply to every guy on the planet, but you’d think it was, given how many times that theme has come up.

I hate to admit it but I am indeed one of those men.

I grew up in a family that lived on maps. In our library, we had amassed a collection of maps from our family vacations in addition to a couple of our fair city of Ottawa.

Once I was old enough to go bicycling on my own, I took to exploring our suburb. I would pull out the city map and find a corner of our ‘burb that I hadn’t discovered yet. Once I had my itinerary laid out, I’d hit the road.

To this day, I know that suburb inside and out to the point of being able to call upon that knowledge when traffic is tied up on the main artery, and I can nimbly navigate around the obstacle.

That was my first exposure to using maps, which became a life skill in itself, along with knowing how to fold it neatly back to its original accordion-like creasing.

From the time I got my first car (and this was long before Google Maps) I would always have in the passenger’s door pocket city maps of Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, as well as maps of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, which pretty much covered me for most of my road trips. And, as the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, I would call up the auto club and order others whenever I explored outside of that corridor.

I can’t say I got lost very often, but if I ever strayed from my itinerary, my maps saved me and got me back on course. That just seemed like a natural part of being a driver who was organized and knew where he was going. For that reason, I felt very self-sufficient. Asking for directions was a rare occurrence for me.

But when apps became part of our reality and maps became rarer, there was an adjustment phase for me.

The problem with the first phone apps was that because the screen was so small, it was hard to zoom in and out to be able to contextualize an address. When that happened, I started stopping at gas stations and shops along the way and asking for directions.

That was when I discovered the problem: many people give horrible directions.

I’ll never forget a friend giving me directions to a party, many years ago, in a part of town I didn’t know well. It took me well over an hour to get there. If I had looked at a map and figured it out myself, I could have been there in 30 minutes.

More often than not, I have gotten more lost as a result of strangers’ directions than if I had driven around and tried to figure it out myself.

I think it is fair to say that people provide directions using points of reference they know and love, which is great, but for someone passing through who is unfamiliar with the surroundings, are those points of reference useful?

Back when I used to work downtown, I was often asked for directions by tourists exploring Canada’s beautiful capital city. Maybe I have that friendly, approachable face that people think equates to “information booth.”

When someone asked me for directions, I knew that the answer was to keep it simple: describe a path in as few steps possible, using major prominent landmarks like the Parliament Buildings or continuous arteries like Bank Street, Elgin Street or Rideau Street that will bring them close to their destination without a lot of left-right distractions along the way.

Maybe my work years, wearing the hat of mentor or trainer have paid off. Maybe my editorial work on system user manuals helped there too.

When giving directions, I think that people tend to forget that they need to imagine that this might be the person’s first time exploring and the directions need to be easy to follow and memorable.

Landmarks and points of reference need to be intuitive, easy to see and can’t be missed. Telling someone to turn right at Old MacDonald’s farm will only be useful if there is a large “Old MacDonald’s Farm” sign, right?

Similarly, when directions are cluttered with an overabundance of details, I might find myself seeking another point of reference. I’m sorry, it’s nothing personal, I just want to get to my destination and back safely and without draining my gas tank or draining my own energy reserves.

I understand why navigation systems and apps were invented and why they are as popular as they are. The information provided is clear, specific, simple and appropriately timed, which doesn’t involve a load of subjective details that are impossible to retain.

That being the case, I may be out of a possible career as a tour guide in downtown Ottawa, but that’s OK.

I was always more than happy to help tourists with directions to find our city’s attractions, but if they now have a better tool, I will happily pass the torch!

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Have a great day,


Filed under 50+, Humour, stories, Travel

3 responses to “Why I Don’t Ask for Directions

  1. Hi. Where I live, we have a strong tendency to not only use landmarks when giving directions, but landmarks that no longer exist, ie, turn left at the old airport. The funny thing is, the kids really know the history of the area. 😄

    Loved the reference to, well what we called trip tics…used to stop at AAA and pick one up before we headed out of our area. We were excited when they finally started including alternate routes due construction. Look at how far we’ve come. 🚗

    • Hello,
      Yes indeed, look how far we’ve come from the trip tics. Our family also lived on those back in the day.
      I can totally relate to your comment about landmarks that no longer exist. We moved to a rural community a couple of years ago, and I have experienced the challenge of navigating directions using phantom points of reference, but that live on in village vernacular.
      Last summer, on our community’s Facebook page, a post was created to translate landmarks from old to current… It was a great walk down memory lane for long time residents, and an education for newbies like me. But the post went on for hundreds of responses, as each generation had its own set of landmarks.
      Thanks for the wonderful comment!

      • Crazy, isn’t it? Well thank goodness for apps like Google maps! (Which has gotten it wrong sometimes…this summer, Maps wanted my hubby to drive thru a lake! 😄)

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