The Lost Art of Receiving Directions

- by Michael

The other day, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a long while: I heard a person give another person directions.

I don’t mean “Oh, it’s over there,” or “Just a block that way,” or “Across the street from Starbucks.” That’s not really giving directions, it’s pointing with words. Useful, sure, but a far cry from this ten-minute-long dissertation upon the proper means of assuring arrival at whatever destination was currently being discussed.

There were landmarks in evidence – foliage, architecture, and at least one reference to livestock. There was a list of streets and byways that seemed to share among them a delight in misinformation that could easily render travelers lost beyond measure. Unless, of course, they followed the directions. And of course there was an entire appendix of “You’ve gone too far” warnings, which included a long list of both of the aforementioned navigational elements.

The amazing thing was this: the listener listened.

Actively. Inquisitively. Probingly.

I wouldn’t be the absolute last person to rail against the overwhelming use of technology in our culture, but I’m probably pretty far down the list. Thing is, I like having a good game of solitaire always handy. I like being able to hop onto Google and answer any of the random questions that buzz around my bizarre brain-matter. And I especially like being able to plug any address or intersection or business name into my phone and have it spit out multiple routes connecting me and it, complete with timings, milage estimations, and traffic warnings.

What’s more, I’m used to it by now. If somebody starts trying to actually give me directions, I’ll just shake my head and say, “Just the address, thanks.” Part of this is my deep frustration with people who refuse to answer questions that are actually asked (“What’s the address?”) and instead choose to answer some other question that they consider more pertinent (“How do I get there?”). But overall I just don’t want to take the time to stand there and listen to someone’s directions when I could just plug in the address and be on my way. I’m not a misanthrope, I promise, but it’s inefficient.

Especially considering that after you listen to the directions, you have to decipher them into something that makes sense to your inner navigational software.

For instance, I like street names. And mile-markers. And I tend to assume that you both carry cardinal directions around in your head at all times and know how to get to major interstates or highways. Directions from me read like a bulleted list: Go north on Interstate 65, take exit 252, head west on Montgomery Highway, turn left on Lorna Road, at the first light turn right, and you’re at Purple Onion, the best greasy-spoon-Mediterranean food you’ll ever have.

Of course, some people like to ensure – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that you know not only where it is, but at least three possible routes to get there. I have a good friend from high-school whose directions to the aforementioned restaurant would have included the back way from his house, the back way from our school, five or six different ‘warning points,’ and an assortment of helpful landmarks - including trees, large dogs, and businesses that have been closed for five years but that you are expected to remember - for each potential route or holdup. Another friend would’ve given her entire set of directions in the “verbal pointing” method described above – “Um, you go on the highway and turn right, then cross over the other highway – I think there’s a hotel there? – and it’ll be on your right.”

Some people will never, ever list street names, while others won’t mention a single landmark. Some will never use cardinal directions, while others – particularly those from states plagued by horizontigo, like Kansas – will ONLY use cardinal directions, never letting the words “left” or “right” cross their lips. Some will assume that you want to avoid all highways as they are death-traps that are, probably, communist in origin. Others will assume that you would consider it worthwhile to pay $30 in tolls to arrive 10 minutes faster.

And on, and on, and on.

Some might say that giving directions is becoming a lost art. I disagree. As long as people like to tell other people what they think and feel helpful in the process, the ability to give directions will fare well. But listening to directions – that act of translating thought processes into something that makes sense to you – that’s becoming rare, and with it an element of personal contact that, in retrospect, seems almost frightening in its intimacy. How you give directions reveals so much about you, when you consider it. What do you value, prioritize, consider beside the point? How does your mind move from A to B? How many options do you think are enough for any given need?

Maybe it’s inefficient, compared to the alternatives.

Maybe it’s maddening and time-consuming.

Maybe – just maybe – the tradition of giving and receiving directions is about covering more distance than just that between you and where you want to be.