How We Give Directions Is Cultural

How do you find your way? Photo by Rohan Shah.

On my way to my first day working at EMBARQ India’s office in Mumbai, I was given directions that included passing through tunnels, alleys and an empty warehouse. I had to ask myself if certain alleys were actually roads I should have been turning on. I was hesitant at the bottom of stairs that I couldn’t be sure would lead me where I wanted to go. The information in my hand included no cardinal directions, street names or specific landmarks beyond the station I was supposed to get off at.

I’ve lived in Mumbai for the better part of the last year. I’ve accepted the lack of street signs. I’ve learned how to use landmarks and judge the confidence of instructions given on the street from a speaker’s body language. I’ve grown accustomed to walking amidst crowds, traffic and animals, but being lost made it all new again.

A phone call cleared up some mistakes, but further instructions only confused me. When I reported being at a crosswalk, the voice on the other line, in perfect English, asked me what that was. I did my best to define something I’d assumed was common: “You know…white lines on the road?”

A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and highlighted in The Atlantic offers insights into why there was so much confusion on what should have been a short walk. Dutch and U.S. participants were asked to give directions to fake recipients, and a surprising number of differences arose, including an American preference to using cardinal directions and road names.

After learning the route, I do understand the choices made in the instructions I was given. It’s actually a quite complicated set of directions to give from Lower Parel station to the EMBARQ office, and there are multiple options at various points along the way.

The important thing I take away from my experience and the study’s findings is that directions are highly dependent on how we see our surroundings. The lack of directions that made sense to me led me astray. What about directions I give? Could my choices in detail make it just as confusing for someone else?

Back home on the Washington, D.C. Metro, the surest wayfinding tool I use is each station’s local area map. However, are the maps any good to those not accustomed to seeing a city as a grid of driven streets? Even the signs above eye-level pointing to various locations on street posts could be foreign to many. (See EMBARQ’s publication, “From Here to There: A Creative Guide to Making Public Transport the Way to Go,” for best practices on  user information systems.)

I remember being thankfully surprised when riding Delhi’s metro system when my friend pointed out the colorful footprints on the ground leading us to our platform. I hadn’t thought to look down. Urban planning in cities with a large international community or those attracting foreign tourists should  further consider various ways to deliver the same information. Perhaps even going so far as to ask people how they would give their directions. What is intuitive to some may not be so intuitive to all.

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